Like lettuce, but smaller. Much smaller.

Microgreens are fast becoming a popular garnish for everything from posh plates to simple sandwiches.

When trying to categorize them, it’s easiest to think of microgreens as being smaller than baby lettuces, but larger than sprouts. And, like sprouts, they should be grown in a shallow, soil-filled tray in full light.

The plants from which microgreens can be harvested are almost endless. Broccoli, carrot, spinach, cabbage, celery, fennel, onion, parsley, radish, turnip, leek, watercress, mustard, arugula, lemon grass, lettuce, clover, mizuna, milk thistle, tatsoi: all can produce microgreens simply by allowing the seedlings to grow until they have between one and two true sets of leaves, then harvesting them by snipping them off with scissors just above the soil surface.

Microgreens work equally well as a garnish for, or as an integral element of a dish, offering chefs that extra bit of colour and texture when composing a plate. They can also provide an additional layer of flavour – ranging from delicate to loud, subtle to spicy.

Ironically, despite their size, these small plants come with a hefty price tag: around $8 per 100 grams. Still, for many chefs, the options and additional oomph microgreens provide are worth the added cost.

Curiously, despite their rising popularity amongst chefs and foodies, microgreens have yet to make their way onto the shelves of grocery stores.

Baby lettuces and mesclun greens, pioneered by California chef and restaurateur Alice Waters decades ago, are now a staple of virtually every supermarket produce section and the go-to salad mix for many home cooks. Sprouts, too, despite occasional concerns about E. coli contamination, also remain readily available. Even herbs, long available only in their dried forms, are now being sold fresh.

How long before microgreens find their place in the produce aisle?

It’s only a matter of time.

In the Ottawa valley, for example, in the past few years a number of producers have cropped up (pun intended) to support that region’s robust restaurant scene, including Butterfly Sky Farms, Bryson Farms, Fines Herbes par Daniel, and Les Jardiniers du Chef.

As with so many things, the supply-and-demand dance will continue for some time yet before microgreens reach the same ubiquity as mesclun. In the meantime, chefs can continue to do their part to raise the awareness of, and increase the demand for microgreens by seeking them out from regional producers and using them in their dishes and on their plates.

Who knows? By the end of the decade, Safeway might be stocking bunches of shiso, mizuna and pak choi alongside heads of romaine, iceberg and red leaf.

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