Classic. Originally Published: Report, September 2002.
If you’ve climbed the gastronomic trellis from iceberg lettuce to romaine lettuce to mesclun, and are surveying the landscape to see where the greening of America is heading next; if you’ve ever experienced a meal that ascended into the stratosphere on a pea shoot, and want your meals to ascend with greater regularity; if the thrilling esoterica of field and garden inflames your culinary imagination; or if you’re simply an out-and-out lover of crunchy, flavor-packed surprises in the midst of dinner…there are two reasons why you need to focus your green thoughts RIGHT NOW:
1) It’s summer: prime time for the harvest of amazing salad greens, and the creation of amazing dishes.
2) The chefs know what’s out there better than anyone, and you’ll find a marked increase as well, in this season, in the quality and variety of greens being used at the best restaurants–both in salads and in other kinds of dishes. If you’re into delicate, achingly beautiful towers of tender, lacy leaves–get thee to an eatery!
There’s just one problem with greens these days: it’s an overgrown jungle out there! So many farmers are growing so many kinds of greens in so many ways that the field (so to speak) has become impossibly confused and complicated. As always, with a burgeoning specialty, the terminology is non-standardized; the words that the professionals use to describe their products don’t always mean the same thing. What are micro-greens? Baby greens? Shoots? Sprouts? Blooms? Not understanding what one is buying always puts a damper on the transaction.
So this article is principally dedicated to clearing up some of this confusion. After you’ve read it, you’ll have a much better grasp of the basic categories of designer greens (micros, babies, etc.) You’ll know which specific greens are becoming the most popular, and discover the tricks that a buyer needs to understand. You’ll get solid ideas on how to use the greens in your kitchen. You’ll be ready to descend on your farmers’ market or effortlessly work your way through an upscale menu.
What’s a Micro-Green? A Baby Green? How Do I Make Sense of All This Stuff?
There are two keys to understanding the current flood of designer greens in our gastronomic world. One key is the fact that greens never before popular in America are gettin’ popular fast, both with chefs and with home cooks. But it’s not just the plants themselves that are so instrumental in the new revolution: it’s the stages of growth at which the plants are harvested that is making such an impact!
In the old days (like a few years ago), farmers would harvest their plants when they came to maturity. There was a compelling logic in this: fully mature plants (like, say, lettuce) are heavier. They have more leaves. it costs the farmer a whole lot less when he harvests a heavy head of lettuce (as opposed to a light head of lettuce), because there’s so much more to sell. You, the consumer, in turn, pay less for that lettuce. Everyone is happy.
But the most quality-minded chefs were not happy. They knew that many plants taste better, or at least different, when they’re harvested at an earlier stage of growth. This was the principle that caught fire in the 1980s when “baby vegetables” were all the rage; now, the focus has turned to pre-pubescent greens! And, in my opinion, the whole concept makes more sense for greens than it does for vegetables. The differences are more dramatic. Greens that you wouldn’t use in salad at all in their mature stages become deliciously viable in their earlier stages. Textures are almost universally better. And, to top it all off–many greens actually taste more intense in their early stages than they do in their mature stages!
The Nine Stages of Growth in Greens:
Stage #1: The Cotyledon Stage
These tiny “pre-leaves” appear on the infant plant before the “true leaves” do. The cotyledon leaves do not resemble the true leaves to follow in look or in taste. Maybe there’ll be a thrill-seeking market for them someday–but they are so tiny that most farmers today just let ‘em keep growing. Tom Keller of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, who’s very fond of “pushing the envelope” uses greens at this stage.
Stage #2: The Micro Stage
This is the first really commercially viable stage–and, accordingly, the phrase “micro-greens” has slipped into our epicurean vocabulary. Micro-greens are the plant’s first true leaves, replacing the cotyledon leaves. They are usually harvested with stalk or stem attached–making the unit of thin stem and just a few micro-leaves look like a sprout. These tiny, tiny leaves have exactly the same look and shape as the mature leaves that they will grow up to be if left alone. Sometimes, they are thrillingly intense in flavor.
Stage #3: The Petite Stage
When the plant begins to form not just individual leaves, but clusters of leaves, the greens are called “petite.”
Stage #4: The Ultra Stage
When the growing plant reaches 2-3 inches. Up to this stage, all harvests from the various plants are principally leaves.
Stage #5: The Baby Stage
This is a crucial stage…and one that’s very important in the marketplace. When a plant first develops a head, or a root–the thing we always think about , like the stalks of bok choy, or the beet itself in a beet plant–it has reached the Baby Stage. The heads and roots are very fashionable–baby carrots, baby bok choy, baby zucchini, etc.–but, in some plants, the baby leaves that grow out of the baby heads or roots are also fantastic (like baby beet greens).
Stage #6: The Young Stage
There is no essential botanical difference here from the last stage–but when a plant matures to become a little bit bigger than it is in the Baby Stage, it has reached the Young Stage. Often, it’s a close call; farmers may call something a Baby plant (cause the name has such cachet), when in fact it may be a little older than that (which means to the farmer that the crop is a little bigger). When it comes to greens–as we reach the Young Stage, we start getting into the realm of leaves that are bigger and, usually tougher. For some plants, like some lettuces, this is not a problem when you’re wanting to make a salad; but for some plants (like kale) moving through this stage means that the leaves are becoming less and less desirable for salad.
Stage #7: The Commercial Stage
In this stage, the plant has reached full vigor, its commercial maturity–but has not yet begun to grow the elements that will result in reproduction. For the heads and roots–as in broccoli, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes, squash, etc.–the commercial stage is the biggie, the one that most often comes to market. For conventional greens and lettuces, it is also the biggie: the icebergs, romaines, green-leaf lettuces, Boston lettuces, etc. that you see in the supermarket are all at the Commercial Stage. But designer-green freaks feel that even these lettuces are better, sweeter, more intense-tasting, better-textured at younger stages. And farmers certainly know that when some greens reach this stage–beet greens, dandelion greens, mustard greens, kale–they become much less attractive for the salad bowl. For specialist growers of designer greens, the commercial stage is best left to the farmers who grow greens for supermarkets.
Stage #8: The Flowering Stage
This occurs when the plant begins its reproductive cycle, starting to bud and bloom. The plant itself at this stage, and its leaves, can sometimes be intensely flavored–but not always. The flowers (or blooms, or blossoms) themselves are sometimes of gastronomic interest. There has been a boom in the use of zucchini flowers in recent years, of course–but other flowers can be even more interesting in flavor such as arugula flowers and pea flowers.
Stage #9: The Seed Stage
At this stage, the plant has come to full maturity. It now yields seed stalks, or pods, that will someday yield the next generation–unless the farmer grabs them. These seed stalks or pods have some of the most intense flavors of any stage in the cycle–but are also hideously expensive. You don’t have to worry much about these: you probably won’t see them at farmers’ markets.
Photos Via: bigstockphoto