Baby greens add versatility to salad plates

April 02, 2008|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,Sun reporter

If you're looking to liven up your greens, spring is a great time to have a baby.

While other vegetables are still seedlings, farmers are harvesting baby spinach, baby arugula and even smaller microgreens. The sprouts are tender and in some cases tiny, but their flavor can be deliciously different.

"The whole idea of harvesting early is to increase the flavor," says Bryan Kerney of Truck Patch Farms in New Windsor. "Picking before a vegetable is fully grown naturally concentrates the flavor that would be dispersed throughout a fully grown vegetable. The bigger they are, the less flavor they'll have."

Microgreens, the smallest and most immature form of greens, are picked after the first 20 days, or as soon as a plant sprouts its first leaves. Baby greens and lettuces are slightly larger and more mature than microgreens and are usually picked within the first 30 to 35 days.

Recently, baby varieties of greens and lettuces have been made more widely available in major grocery stores and supermarkets, thanks to advances in packaging techniques. But for years, baby greens and lettuces have been used as more flavorful substitutes in salads.

"Taste- and presentation-wise, baby varieties are more versatile in a restaurant kitchen," says farmer Jack Gurley of Calvert's Gift Farm in Sparks. "Also, if it's a mixture of different-colored lettuces, it's certainly more attractive than a head of iceberg lettuce."

Chef Marlene Rigato of Boccaccio restaurant in Little Italy agrees. She says that baby greens and lettuces, which can range from sweet to bitter and from buttery to peppery, work well with a restaurant's effort to serve dishes that are not only flavorful, but aesthetically pleasing.

Colorful greens and lettuces are also attractive to those outside of the restaurant. Gurley says that red varieties of baby greens and lettuces are some of the most popular at the local farmers' markets where he is a vendor.

There are a few more common varieties of baby greens and lettuces that diners are more likely to spot in their salads at a restaurant.

Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant in Federal Hill says baby spinach is popular because the softer stems can be left alone, which cuts down on prep time. Pellegrino often uses a combination of red and green baby romaine to create a Caesar salad that's "a little less crunchy than a salad created from its full-grown counterparts."

But there is a downside to using miniature versions of leafy produce. In terms of shelf life, Gurley says that baby greens and lettuces will stay fresh seven to 10 days after initial harvest. Full-grown greens and lettuces retain more water and can stay fresh for longer periods of time (up to two weeks after initial harvest). Baby greens and lettuces with stronger flavors, such as baby kale and mustard greens, tend to lose their flavor at a greater rate than more mature varieties.

Pellegrino says baby greens and lettuces lend themselves to smaller portions in a restaurant. Their size makes them fit for creating a salad that is part of a multicourse meal.

"If you're sitting down to have only a salad, you'll want one that's made from a large head of lettuce," says Pellegrino. "Otherwise, you won't be getting much out of it."

Size is even more of an issue with microgreens. Considerably smaller than baby greens or baby lettuces, the infant microgreen has leaves no wider than an inch. It serves a much different purpose than more mature and developed baby greens and lettuces.

Technically, a microgreen is simply the first sprouts of any vegetable. According to Mike Pappas, owner of Eco Farms in Lanham, the flavor of many microgreens can be somewhat unexpected.

"The flavor of different greens can be surprising," says Pappas. "Although the flavors are never exactly the same as the full-grown versions, they're more sublime than intense."

Rather than act as the base of a salad, microgreens are used as garnishes. Although the availability of microgreens is limited for home cooks because of their high price and even shorter shelf life (up to seven days), chefs use them to accentuate a dish by adding a subtle hint of flavor and a small burst of color.

"Microgreens have a lot to do with flavor and presentation," says Rigato. "They naturally lend themselves to whatever you're using."

A beef carpaccio is one dish that Rigato says can be enhanced by microgreens. She uses mache, a pale green, triangular-shaped French microgreen that's tangy and adds the sort of bite that can stand up to the beef and a caper vinaigrette.

While Pellegrino agrees that microgreens can liven up a plate, he says that some chefs have approached the miniature green strictly from a visual standpoint.

"There are a lot of microgreens that don't bring a lot of flavor and are essentially edible leaves," he says. "From a garnishing standpoint, the greens need to be a strong source of flavor. Otherwise, it's just purely aesthetics."

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