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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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I kid.

Alice Waters‘ contribution to the culinary arts is remarkable, to say the least. The chef of the world-famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California has done more for food, for eating, for restaurants, and for the nutrition of America’s children than most. Among her many accomplishments: making micro, mixed and field greens a staple of salad plates at homes and restaurants across North America.

You know the ones I’m talking about: chervil, arugula, endive, baby spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens, dandelion, frisée, mizuna, mâche, radicchio, sorrel; often, together or in any combination thereof referred to as mesclun.

And it’s for that reason I shake my fist at her: among my many tasks this summer: picking through cases of mesclun to rid them of even the tiniest wilted leaf, bit of rot, or dead fruit fly.

Of course, no one wants that on their plate or, worse, in their mouth; it’s just the ubiquity of these greens — they’re the standard mix for most tossed salads nowadays and available in the produce section of even the smallest grocery stores — means we have to bring in so many cases, and the task of picking through them so long and tedious.

Hours pass, cases emptied, leaves sorted, greens repacked for service. My back aches, my eyes blurry.

To be fair, Chef Waters, herself, has acknowledged what she’s wrought:

I’m sure I have contributed to the awful demise of the concept of mesclun, just by promoting it in many, many, many ways. And now, of course, one of those big companies has grabbed on to the idea, and they cut up big lettuces and put ’em in a bag, mix ’em up, and call ’em mesclun.

And indeed she has a point about what passes for mesclun now that it’s gone mainstream and mass-market. Still, it’s little consolation when dinner service is about to commence and I’m staring at a half dozen cases of the stuff yet to be gone through.

So I say, forget mixed greens; this season my vote’s for a simple, single green salad of arugula. Who’s with me?

This past week, we were tasked with creating a salad incorporating pears.

In any other circumstance, this would be a bizarre assignment. However, a week earlier, we spent a day with the  Pear Lady — a national food educator who focussed on, you guessed it, pears.

Working with two classmates, I came up with the following: an arugula salad dressed with a pear vinaigrette and served with herbed goat cheese and pear turn-overs.

Sure, the presentation could have been better; the salad should have been centered on the plate, the turnovers smaller, the pear jam drizzled not smeared on the plate. All in all, however, I was pleased with our attempt.

Who knew pears were so versatile — and salad so… pretty.