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Steve Whiteman's Famous Micro-Greens
Steve Whiteman grows and sells micro-greens for a living. So just what are micro-greens? They are very tiny edible plants usually no more than 8 to 21 days old that have just developed their cotyledon (first) leaves. They are far tinier than baby greens. Think of the first threadlike shoot that rises when you plant a seed, and the first tiny leaves. You may have seen a few scattered on your plate or garnishing your food at fine restaurants.
Micro-greens are very tender, packed with intense flavor and filled with healthy nutrients – and contain scarsely a calorie. Researchers have found that they contain higher levels of concentrated active compounds such as antioxidants than in mature plants or seeds. Micro-greens are considered to be in the group of what are newly referred to as “functional foods” that have particular health promoting or disease preventing properties in addition to their normal nutritional values. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/08/29/160274163/introducing-microgreens-younger-and-maybe-more-nutritious-vegetables
Micro-greens don’t have to be green. You can find seeds that will produce edible shoots in a wide variety of colors – red, purple, white, lavender, pink, yellow as well as every shade of green you can imagine. The flavors can vary from supremely sweet (Steve’s “corn-sickles) to bitter, tart, hot, sour, nutty and mild. From a chef’s perspective I find them visually captivating and sublime to eat. I refer to them as “Chef’s Confetti” and use them regularly at the Beechwood Inn as garnish, in salads, sandwiches, soups and in main courses.
Another captivating thing about Steve’s micro-greens is that he has them available year-round. I asked Steve how do you grow and supply your mico-greens in the dead of a vicious North Georgia winter? He invited me out to his farm for a tour and to learn how they can be grown even when the temperatures are hovering in the teens.
We started with some questions about where he got his start in the farming of micro-greens. He recalls helping his mother with her vegetable garden when he was a youngster and believes that is where he got the interest in gardening. Then, during the 1970’s he found a passion in the organic farm movement. It became a part of his spirituality. Whenever he moved the first thing he did was tear up the yard and plant vegetables. He recalls that one house he moved to had only a small yard crowded between his and the neigbor’s house. The site had no sun, but he persisted with his plans and planted beets. They sprouted but would not grow further without sun, so he made a salad using the purple dicots – it was delicious and beautiful. So, that was how Steve Whiteman invented “Steve’s Famous Micro-Green Salad Mix.” That was 20 years ago, and he has been working to perfect his salad mix ever since.
His home and farm are in Habersham County just outside Clarkesville. The basement of his house is filled with grow boxes, grow lights and a large wood stove to keep the little micro’s happy and sprouting even on the coldest of nights. In clearings around his house are cold frames, green houses and organic compost piles. Viewing this operation I can conclude that Steve is a serious farmer and knows a treasure trove of information about building organic soils, and offering food and shelter to his plants.
He has designed and built a series of green houses, each one an improvement over the last. His most recent green house contains a Cob Stove. It is a homemade wood fired stove made from a mixture of clay, sand and straw, which is what "Cob" is. It is designed to retain the heat from a fire built inside. On cold nights Steve will trek out to the green house at 10:00pm for its final stoking and his micro-greens stay sproutingly warm all night long.
Steve told me that his beds are 10-15% organic matter, whereas a typical conventional farm may have 1-2%. His soils are alive with micro-organisms that digest plant materials and release nutrients back into the soil. Seed is broadcasted over a prepared bed and days later a green carpet springs forth. The tiny greens must be protected from drowning rains, too much sun, too much dryness and hungry mammals. As the carpet grows he thins the greens making cleared rows and this permits more seeds to sprout. Finally after several weeks he turns the soil over and starts again. All the soil is turned by hand so that the organic material remaining from the sprouts can be deeply buried under the soil, so the cycle renews.
I toured Steve’s farm in late March. First I got to taste tiny corn-sickles. They were sprouting in covered trays in his basement. They offered an explosion of sweet corn flavor – hence the name. There were also beds of hong vit seedlings (purple radish), sunflower sprouts and red buckwheat. Outside in cold frames and in the green houses were beds of mizuna, spinach, Kings Lettuce, arugula, and micro lettuces of every color. As the weather warms the variety of seeds that he plants will change. More colors and flavors will be added. Plus, he says some micros take on different characteristics as the weather warms or cools. Steve is always looking for new varieties of seeds to plant and add to his salad mix. His house is filled with catalogues. Many of his seeds come from Johnny’s Selected Seeds http://www.johnnyseeds.com, which offers high quality inspected seeds.
He actively started to market his micro-greens to the public and to restaurants about three years ago; before that he just grew them to eat and share with friends. In addition to the salad mix, for restaurants he will provide small packets of “Chef’s Confetti.” Just let him know what colors and flavors you would like. He is working on a second salad mix that will contain more lettuces and some cilantro, cutting celery and other new varieties that will make it a completely different taste and texture.
While talking to Steve I learned he has written a book Swallowing the Avocado of Enlightenment: A Spiritual Guide for the Rest of Us, Trillium Center Press 2006. Curious, I acquired a copy to peruse. I found the book’s simple, practical approach uncommonly understandable. To me, most books of this genre make religious belief and spiritual experiences overly complex and incomprehensible. Standing above this landscape of human effort someone has finally presented a very simple and unifying concept. Nice job Steve.
After I saw and tasted Steve’s micro-greens for the first time I was heard to mutter “where have you been all my life?” These micros have become an important part of our fine dining experience at the Beechwood Inn. Steve is trying to grow his business, so if you would like to try some really wonderful and nutritious micro-greens you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (706) 754-9478. North Georgia
David Darugh is co-owner of the Beechwood Inn, located in Clayton, GA. www.beechwoodinn.ws. The inn includes a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence Restaurant that features fresh and local products. David was the General Counsel of the American Wine Society from 1990 to 2001.