Some years ago I worked for a large international restaurant chain that was about to introduce a line of fresh salads to their menu. The restaurant, up until that time, had been a real “meat and potatoes” type of place that was all about taste and market share and wasn’t health conscious at all. The salads were viewed as a big gamble by most of the upper management, one vice-president referring to them as “rabbit food.” The trend at that time, like a lot of other food innovations, came out of California.
Two early innovations in salad history-crab Louis and green goddess dressing came from restaurants in San Francisco. Hollywood’s Brown Derby takes credit for creating the cobb salad in 1926. This was basically a chunk of iceberg with the only variety being the choice of dressings offered. Then, in the 1970’s varieties of lettuce like mesclun, radicchio, and lamb’s lettuce became available in California and slowly spread to the rest of the country. In the 1980’s growers in California began responding to the ever- greening market by diversifying on a large scale. Some of the first pre-washed and bagged baby greens were shipped. This market has grown to sales of about $400 million annually in the last few years.
It’s no wonder that California is now pioneering the latest trend in the salad market-microgreens. Microgreens are extremely thin, delicate plants, the smallest possible incarnation of salad greens, herbs, edible flowers, and leafy vegetables. The flavor that comes from these tiny plants is very intense and they are most often used as garnishes and toppings. A few years ago the only way that a restaurant could come by these greens was to grow them in tiny beds at the restaurant itself. Now there are a number of suppliers in California that grow the microgreens exclusively for the chefs. They deliver the plants to the restaurants as soon as a few leaves appear-the chefs tell them how many leaves are acceptable. The chef then cuts what he or she needs from the living plants so the patron gets a blast of just-harvested flavor. All of this doesn’t come cheap. A five or six inch plastic container-called a clamshell- runs about $26 bucks. Right now you can pretty much only get microgreens at restaurants, but a couple of the distributors are making them available for home use.
Now microgreens are becoming available in Missouri. Claverach Farms in Eureka just west of St. Louis has added a grow room for microgreens and will be growing them indoors all winter. They include arugula, bull’s blood beets, cress, mizuna (a Japanese salad green), red and yellow chard, red Russian kale, red mustard, and shungiku, or Chrysanthemum shoots. Right now Claverach Farms sells its micrgreens to some area restaurants and they are also available at Ladue Market and The Wine Merchant in Clayton.
Although the greens are trendy, the owner’s interest in them is not and the list of restaurants that want to include the microgreens on their menus is growing. Another curious thing that Claverach Farms is working on is verjus, an acidic liquid made from grapes and unripe fruits that hasn’t really been popular since the Middle Ages. Who knows?