The Green Line

An unintended encounter with the power of microgreens, the new urban heroes.

Microgreens. They’re a term turned food, sometimes more, other times less micro, surprisingly enough not always primarily green, and they have been experiencing a massive revival in the past couple of years. ‘Greens’ are no longer known as the part of the food pyramid toddlers push off their plates in an offended and hysteric manner, but as a healthy power food that can be found in food trucks dishes and chefs’ kitchens alike. Cabbage isn’t cabbage anymore, it’s kale. And it’s no longer perceived as the vegetable you somehow associate with grandmothers and moldy cellars, but that has found its way onto hip culinary blogs and into green smoothies.

Microgreens are the vegetable of the city, the urbanite’s fuel. Nowadays mainly produced in vertical farms, without soil or natural light, they also symbolize a promising innovation, considering the world’s exploding population that needs to be fed as well as the fact that conditions for traditional agriculture are more and more challenged by climate change and its gruesome consequences.

A rapidly progressing urbanization indicates that people are looking to cities for opportunity, prosperity and (some) answers to the world’s problems—with more than half of the world’s population living in cities and towns by now. It might seem a little surprising that the possible solution for the future of agriculture possibly lies in cities, but with vacant buildings in the urban landscape—the city’s voids—a space for agricultural innovations and solutions is readily available. The concept of vertical farming, just as urbanization itself, is one fueled by urban potential and global crisis. “Urban living has the potential to use resources more efficiently, to create more sustainable land use and to protect the biodiversity of natural ecosystems,” we can read on the United Nations Popular Fund’s webpage.

But what’s after the theory? Counting myself to the group of hip urbanites, I, of course, am a proud subscriber to a weekly ‘green box’ filled with local products from Montreal—grown in greenhouses on the city’s vast rooftops—and close-by farms. They’re good, they’re fresh and they keep my conscience clean as well as my thumb green (I also tell myself that they reduce the size of my carbon footprint by a few sizes). Even if some of the effects of this ‘green boxing’ might not be as impactful as I’d like them to be, I consider it my contribution to local economy and farming.

Last week, however, I made one major mistake that revealed my mere layman status in the green living department: I failed to customize my box online prior to the pick-up day. A “grande gaffe,” as the French would say, that transformed my fridge into a microgreen jungle and my astonishment as to the apparent variety of greens into a slight fear of everything green. A mistake I won’t make a second time.

The crux: usually, microgreens are the first items of my box I remove with a simple click—it might be the at the center of the original idea for the box and its namesake, but this doesn’t stop me from clicking anyway. And there’s a simple reason for that, since I actually don’t really know what microgreens are and what to do with them—they’re a modern day mystery to me, if you will. Are they salad ingredients? Which ones belong in a smoothie and which ones are just plain old pan food?

I also don’t know what the ‘micro’ actually refers to—as a simple glance into the fateful box reveals there are some pretty big models as well—nor why there is such a vast diversity of species that somehow manage to all look the same. Do I eat the stems or the leaves? Am I supposed to dip them or delicately sauté them? And is another colour, theoretically, allowed as well? A simple Google search reveals: there are over 25 varieties (it must be more!) and they’re not to be confused with sprouts. Good to know.

And of course: are those ‘power food’ heroes able to show for some solid nutritional value or are they just like spinach, whose iron content had been falsely considered sky-high due to a misplaced decimal point, creating one of the biggest food myths in the history of food? (I’m sure parents all over the world are still trying to recover from the discovery that spinach, their kids’ long-term iron provider, was a fraud).

So many questions and so much green in my box, sprouting (even though we now know we’re not dealing with sprouts!) in all shades of green, forms of leaves and thicknesses of stems. There seems to be only one way to get to the bottom of it all: the ultimate Microgreen Test. What I need? A knife, my fearless sense of taste and some dip. So I open the fridge to examine more closely what exactly the wildly growing world of microgreens has to offer. It’s going to be a wild afternoon.

What does my hand grab first? Rainbow Chard. My first thought: not as colourful as one might expect, come rain or shine. Not very filling either. The word chard is just as anticlimactic as cabbage. And I always thought this kind was actually called Swiss Chard. Oh well.

And what will Siberian Kale do for me? It does seem to go back to the roots of cabbage, triggering images of snowy Russia, cold cellars and dire winters—maybe it’s the most Siberian winter-proof of all kales? The test reveals: Siberian Kale tastes just like Rainbow Chard, even though they show slight differences in appearance. However, it’s even less filling. Definitely not Siberia material.

Then there’s Small Dinosaur Kale. Interesting oxymoron. I wonder what the big version looks like, given that the one I’m holding in my hands is already pretty impressive size-wise—long stems, leaves everywhere, even though neither are dinosaur-shaped nor in any other way as rare and extraordinary as the extinctness of the namesake seems to be trying to allude to (although one could imagine dinosaurs, back in the days, eating a diet based on similar food). Cabbage isn’t very sexy in general and doesn’t really rank among the glamorous types of vegetables, such as the avocado (or sprouts). Ever since the invention of the green Super Smoothie we might be tricked into thinking otherwise, but nothing, not even a seemingly authoritative name, can cover up the fact that kale is just another cabbage—as my research revealed, even a ‘primitive’ form of cabbage that hasn’t been able to grow a head. Not impressed with this one I must say.

The Green Butter Lettuce. Another deceiving name—food gets mixed up here in all kinds of ways I’m starting to realize. The tasting shows: it’s not called this way because it tastes like butter, but because it needs butter. Ergo: not suitable for vegan diets. I only award 5 cabbage heads out of 10 (though deceiving, the name is inventive, which should be taken into account during my assessment).

The conclusion in regards to dipping: everything can be dipped, preferably into hummus. Ratio: 1 part microgreen, 3 parts hummus.

I need to stop after this green since none of the ones that are left actually look like they should be eaten raw. Maybe I reached the line where salad ingredients and dip-carriers end and the material for sautéing and steaming begins—a ‘green line’ so to say. I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure.

I end up chopping the microgreens with much love and some appreciation for the comical situation. Every now and then, life just leaves us no other option—there seems to be only one way out of the land of the plentiful greens.  Apparently it’s paved with sharp kitchen knives and leads to the freezer.

How long will the chopped-up jungle stay there? Who knows, the freezer is patient. And there won’t be anything green in my green box for a little while. Click.

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