Microgreens take root in the City of Oaks.
AS THE PLANT-BASED diet trend gains traction, greens are commanding more real estate on restaurant menus and plates, but there’s a tiny yet mighty green that’s vying for more of the spot- light: the microgreen. Not to be confused with sprouts, microgreens are the fi rst true leaves of a vegetable or herb. Often used to give plates a pop of color, some of Raleigh’s top chefs are giving microgreens their due, treating the intensely- fl avored leaves and stems as a stand-alone ingredient that enhance dishes’ fl avors and textures. Locally, it’s all thanks to Tami Purdue.
Purdue, who traded in her career in intellectual property to grow microgreens out of an abandoned shipping container, is the founder of Sweet Peas Urban Gardens, which grows more than 55 varieties of microgreens. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Through her volunteer work with Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Purdue learned how to grow microgreens at a workshop led by urban agriculture pioneer Will Allen. Allen promoted microgreens as both a solution to food insecurity as well as a small farm business model, with the caveat that, to be profitable, growers had to sell to chefs. Purdue was so inspired that she immediately drafted a business plan and planted her first microgreen: arugula. During the summer of 2014, Purdue experimented with growing diff erent varieties while analyzing small farm business plans. By the end of the season, she gave up her day job to become a microgreen farmer.
Purdue continued growing microgreens out of her Raleigh residence and brought her fi rst harvest—arugula, pea shoots, a spicy mix with radish, arugula and mustard greens, a mild mix with broccoli, cabbage and kohlrabi, and micro cilantro and basil—to the Wake Forest Farmers Market. Chef Lotah Fields from Farm Table Kitchen & Bar was so ec- static to fi nd microgreens that he bought everything. “That’s what got me inspired that I could do this and that there was a little bit of a market for it,” Purdue says.
INDOOR GROWING SPACES
Over the next year, Purdue sold to more restaurants through Raleigh City Farm, where she met Ben Greene, a NC State University graduate whose master’s degree thesis and subsequent business, the Farmery, developed indoor farming technology that converted abandoned shipping containers into indoor growing spaces. “I said, ‘I want one,’” says Purdue. “I looked at the data about how much could be grown in it and it was fi ve times what we were growing in my house.”
The 40-foot grow box’s efficient space and controlled environment allowed Purdue to consistently produce fresh microgreens, much to the delight of local chefs. Her prime location just outside downtown meant that chefs could easily pick up—or sometimes literally pick—their orders. Though Purdue had to relocate to Hillsborough late last year, she will return to Raleigh with two additional grow box installations, one at the Transfer Co. food hall, opening this summer, and one at Rebus Works, where she also sells at their Saturday market. While Purdue has seen more interest in microgreens among consumers—likely due to their purported health benefi ts, as a recent study shows that microgreens pack four to 40 times more nutrients than their fully-grown counterparts— chefs remain her best customers.
Four years later, Farm Table Kitchen & Bar is still a loyal customer. Chef Jerome Zimmer uses microgreens to add dimension to everything from fi sh to roasted vegetables, and even had Purdue specially grow micro caraway for a recent Triangle Wine Experience dinner. Its toasty rye notes complemented the rye bread served with a pork pâté and pulled together a branzino dish plated
with a Russian dressing. Another custom request came from chef Patrick Colley at Caroli- na Country Club, who used slightly bitter pumpkin microgreens to balance the sweetness of a butternut squash bisque. “They [also have] a very thick leaf so they added a subtle texture to the soup along with the pumpkin seeds,” Colley says. “I know this may sound a little strange, but I also felt like they added a certain element of umami to the dish.”
Instead of topping Pharmacy Café’s grilled halloumi sandwich with ho-hum mesclun, chef Patrick Cowden pulls in Sweet Peas’ spicy mix, a blend of cilantro, radish, arugula and mustard microgreens with nuanced peper notes. Bowden has also experimented with microgreens in vinaigrettes, where micro herbs like sorrel yield a bright, refined flavor without the astringency. At Raleigh institution Vinnie’s Steak House, chef Tom Armstrong incorporates microgreens into weekly specials and is particularly into micro herbs. “Right now, we’
re doing beef carpaccio and we’re using chervil on that,” he says. “I thought about doing fried parsley leaves, but micro chervil has a fresher, cleaner flavor. It’s like a better version of parsley. It brings a mild herbaceousness to the other flavors, like capers, horseradish and egg yolk.” And, at 18 Seaboard, chef Jake Wood also uses microgreens to elevate meaty fare, relying on micro garlic to deliver a pronounced chive flavor and snappy texture to beef carpaccio, and nutty-sweet sunflower shoots to offset the richness of a rib eye. Purdue enjoys working with chefs and seeing her microgreens shine in their creations, but as part of her mission to spread the microgreens love, Purdue donates Sweet Peas’ market leftovers to A Place at the Table, a pay-what-you-can café where chef Aaron Stienessen uses sunflower shoots and pea shoots to deliver fresh crunch to sandwiches and salads.