The season is changing. There is a slight nip in the air, dew on the grass and a slant to the morning light. A flock of tiny White Eye’s are foraging in the custard apple tree next to the lily pond as I sit in the porch with a mug of steaming hot mint and lemongrass chai. It is about that time of the year when I start thinking about and planning my winter kitchen garden. After a bountiful yield last winter, I am making grander plans with more exotics this time as well as increasing trays for microgreens—those succulent, slender but flavourful little overgrown sprouts of sorts which one can harvest within days of seed germination, often as less as 5 for certain vegetables. I love the wonderful, peppery bite they have.
The microgreens revolution started in the early 80’s or so, and were used as a visual as well as flavour ingredient in fine dining. It originated in the heart of the nouvelle cuisine state of the US, California. The first time I saw these little green and red jewels—with a burst of vibrant flavour the minute you bit into them—was at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Alice Waters’ iconic restaurant, famous for being at the forefront of a movement that changed the way Americans viewed fine dining, and food in general. Chez Panisse put fresh, local, organic produce at the centre of its cooking, which was grounded in classical French techniques. For me, it was the beginning of a love affair without end; a delightfully gastronomic, enlightening experience which, as a student, put a large hole in my pocket.
Microgreens are a size between a sprout and baby greens and can be harvested once they are 1” to 3” high. They have three basic parts: a central stem, cotyledon or seedling leaves, and the first pair of very young true leaves. They look beautiful, hold concentrated doses of flavour, and are very versatile. For me the best plants to grow are the ones which add a punch: radish, mustard, arugula, kale, beet, watercress and coriander. But there are many more you can experiment with, including peas, chia, varieties of lettuce, flax, clover, broccoli and chard, to name a few. Certain varieties of radish, especially the reds, have intensely coloured leaves that contain high levels of antioxidants, besides adding colour, flavour, textures and a delectable oomph to the right dish. Researchers found microgreens like red cabbage, cilantro, and radish contain up to 40 times higher levels of vital nutrients than their mature counterparts.
Apart from their use as garnishes, I like to experiment with wholesome salads with just combinations of different microgreens from the many trays in my garden. Keeping the salad simple is the key to creating a delicately textured and flavourful one; some grated carrot or beet, cubed avocado and often a few pieces of citrus—skinned kinnow, sweet lime, orange or grapefruit—in an olive oil, balsamic vinegar or lime juice dressing with a touch of shorshe bata (brown mustard seed paste with salt and green chilli, widely used in Bengali cuisine) instead of regular mustard. Finish with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts or slivers of almond. The trick is not to over- power the flavour of the delicate shoots.
Growing microgreens is easy as they require little space, indirect sunlight and warm, humid locales. They can be grown in your garden, balcony, terrace or even a windowsill in the kitchen. A used take-out plastic container, fabric planters—which a lot of nurseries sell these days—or a shallow terra cotta tray will do just fine as long as they have drainage holes at the bottom and are about 2 inches high. Fill the container with a mix of good quality soil and organic fertilizer and a fistful or two of sand if your soil needs better drainage. Level out the mix, gently patting it and evenly sprinkle seeds of the greens you want to grow. Cover with a thin layer of the soil mix and water gently. Some micro-green seeds germinate better if they are soaked for a few hours and then sown; the best way to learn is by experimenting. I find that in my soil and weather, radish, beet and kale do better when soaked overnight before planting. In warm weather it is best to keep the trays/planters under a tree to keep them from wilting and burning as they grow. Keep checking the trays every day, keeping them moist but making sure not to over-water. Within days you will see the magic happening.
Once you are ready to harvest, the cutting height is important. They must have a clean portion of stem below the leaves and should be cut just a little above the soil-level with sharp scissors. Be gentle while harvesting as the stems are very delicate and tend to break. Once this is done, have a bowl of cold water ready and dip individually or a few at a time and rinse well, laying them to dry on a paper towel. If you don’t plan to use them right away, store them in a zip lock bag between paper towels in the refrigerator.
Microgreens add elegance to almost anything and enhance everyday food when used as toppings, flavourings or garnishes. So go head and incorporate them into your daily dishes and start a deliciously nutritious adventure today.
Mixed microgreens salad with carrots, citrus and roasted pine nuts
1 cup of mixed microgreens
Half medium sized avocado, peeled and cubed
1 heaped Tbsp grated carrot
1 heaped Tbsp roasted Chilgoza/Pine nuts
A few wedges of an orange or any other sweet-sour citrus, peeled and cubed
1 Tbsp cold-pressed olive oil
1 Tbsp Orange juice
1 tsp lime juice
Half tsp sharp mustard or sorshe bata
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and air dry the microgreens in a colander. Place them in a bowl and add the rest of the salad ingredients. Mix the vinaigrette ingredients well and pour over the salad. Gently mix with your hands. Sprinkle roasted pine nuts.
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.