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Micro munch

LEXINGTON, Ky. — On the growth continuum between seeds and mature plants, microgreens lie somewhere on the "newly arrived" side, between sprouts and baby vegetables.

These teensiest of seedlings, with delicate translucent stems that bear a hint of true leaf forms, can pack a surprisingly powerful and nutrient-rich flavor punch. They're also a quick and easy way to garden, because microgreens may be grown from seed during any season. Just plant them in flats by a sunny window; in a little more than two weeks, they're ready.

Their cheery colors and concentrated taste make them an eye-catching garnish and tangy topping for salads and soups. Purple basil, crimson beet and creamy-white-stemmed pak choi are yummy delights that have been discovered by chefs and sourced from local producers to meet specific menu needs.

In Woodford County, Ky., chef Ouita Michel of Midway's Holly Hill Inn serves microgreens as an edible garnish, as a base for various dishes and in salads.

Her tomato dumpling, a phyllo-encrusted heirloom tomato stuffed with Capriole goat cheese and pistou, is served with cayenne gastrique and microgreens.

"They have great flavor and a great look on the plate," Michel says of spicy greens such as mustard and radish, and those of pungent herbs such as basil, fennel and cilantro and other microveggies. "If something needs a spark and a splash of vibrancy, I typically go for the microgreens."

Commercial growers David Wagoner and Arwen Donahue of Three Springs Farm near Carlisle, Ky., supply the restaurant with a variety of greens year-round.

Wagoner says that another delicious way these greens are used at the inn is to spruce up an amuse-bouche traditionally offered by the chef.

"The microgreens I sell to Ouita are primarily claytonia, minutina and mache, which are remarkably winter-hardy here in Kentucky, even here in our frost-prone valley at Three Springs Farm," Wagoner says. "These greens can be cut from the garden from November through April if protected with row covers. They can all be cut when very young as microgreens or be allowed to size up some."

Many vegetables and herbs work well as microgreens, including amaranth, mustard, kale, carrot, sweet peas, basil, cilantro and parsley. These little seedlings are highly perishable once harvested, but if grown at home, they are simple to snip and enjoy fresh at a moment's notice.

Using Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson's reference book "Microgreens: A Guide to Growing Nutrient-Packed Greens" (Gibbs Smith, $24.99), I tried growing microgreens this month, with great success.

Here is a step-by-step guide:

You'll need a seed-starting tray with a fitted, transparent cover and some planting medium, both of which can be found easily at big-box stores and garden centers this time of year. Clean, sterile supplies will help avoid introducing contaminants and diseases that can infect fragile seedlings. I bought three Jiffy Seed Starter kits, complete with trays of 50 peat pots, a plastic base tray and a clear dome; each tray measures about 16 by 10 inches, and about 2 inches deep.

A 10-quart bag of Burpee's organic seed starting mix made from coir, or coconut husk fiber, was enough to fill all three trays. My total expense was about $20.

  • Decide which types of seed to grow. My favorites are beets, because the stems are a bright red and they have an earthy taste; cilantro and basil, because of the surprisingly intense flavor of the microgreens; and pak choi for the heart-shaped cotyledon leaves. Do not use seeds that have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. I chose an assortment of mostly organic varieties at local garden shops, which added up to about $15.
  • Fill the trays with the starter mix, then lightly tamp it down and level it off. Sprinkle seeds close together atop the planting mix, depending on how densely you want your microgreens to grow. Ignore the packet directions for plant spacing because your plants will get nowhere near fully mature.
  • Cover the seeds with a single layer of paper towel to aid in moisture retention for germinating seeds, then water the starter mix and seeds through the paper until damp but well-drained. Cover the tray with the plastic dome lid, and place it in a sunny, warm window. In a few days, you'll see the greens begin to peek out. Meanwhile, keep the soil and paper towels damp.
  • Once the sprouts are about an inch tall, gently remove the paper towels and lids, being careful the seedlings do not stick to the paper. Keep watering, but sprinkle the water gently so you don't knock over the microgreens.
  • The first true leaves will emerge a few days after an initial pair of seed leaves. That means it's time to harvest your micro crop. Gather them just before you want to use them by snipping off the stems close to the soil. If you thin out the seedlings to only one or two per peat pot and let them grow longer, you'll have transplants for your outdoor garden.

Beet microgreens are great for garnishes, because they have a powerfully robust, earthy flavor and a crimson colored stem, which seems to glow from within. (Susan Smith-Durisek/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)