Baby veggies ‘sprout’ up on menus

The young ones: Baby veggies ‘sprout’ up on menus

Milford Prewitt

It seems criminal to harvest baby vegetable plants before their prime. But some of the nation’s most respected chefs say it would be a crime if they didn’t let their guests taste the rich flavors and textures of young plants, served cooked or raw.

Whether they are called shoots, tendrils, sprouts, sprigs or even micro-greens, creative chefs are finding farmers who are harvesting all kinds of vegetables, often within days of the plant’s breaking through the earth. The chefs say that in many cases the young plants are more tasty than they would have been if they had grown to maturity.

To be sure, plucking shoots or sprouts from the ground is not to be confused with the agricultural practice of thinning, where farmers weed out young plants so that surviving crops have more space to develop hilly. Instead, what is happening is that such vegetables as radish, corn, jalapeno, broccoli, wheat, sunflower, garlic, soybean, cauliflower, lentil, cilantro, onion, carrot, pea and all manner of leafy lettuce greens and edible flowers are harvested as young plants for the dinner plate.

“We’re always looking for new foods, and I think it’s so exciting that in our search we’re able to use vegetables at different growing points in their growth cycles,” says Diane Forley, chef-owner of Verbena in Manhattan and an assiduously passionate user of sprouts for flavoring and garnishing. At her American regional restaurant, Forley has used shoots of sunflower, corn, broccoli, onions and wheat.

Corn sprouts also are a popular young vegetable in menus across the country, even though, in some cases, guests are unaware of it.

At Gramercy Tavern, not too far from Verbena, guests who assume that the sprigs of green floating in the corn chowder are parsley would be surprised to learn that the green slithers are corn shoots.

Indeed, Gramercy Tavern executive chef Tom Colicchio uses corn shoots in a number of items on his menu. He buys them at the Union Square Green Market from farmers who pick the plant within clays of its breaking out of the soil.

“They taste so sweet,” he says. “We use them in corn relish. We use them raw. We use them in a corn chowder with smoked salmon.

“You wouldn’t expect it, but they have a flavor just like whole-kernel corn.”

Sprouts that taste as good as they would at maturity or better are the driving motivation behind the chefs appreciation for vegetable shoots.

“I think there’s an energy in sprouts that you won’t find in a grown plant,” Forley says. “You take something like a broccoli sprout: In that small sprout, there’s more energy than you’d find in an equivalent head of broccoli.”

In a dish of pan-sauteed shrimp with vermicelli and mixed sprouts, Forley used wheat sprouts and stretches the same wheat-sprouts inventory as an ingredient in a vegetable sandwich at her 3-month-old takeout store.

“What I like about wheat sprouts are the nutty, sweet tastes,” she says. “In fact, it’s a sweetness that is almost similar to the sweetness of sunflower sprouts, which I have also used.”

Stressing the fact that sprouts are no passing fad, Forley sounds like a chef for whom tendrils and shoots are going to be permanent menu ingredients. Take her passion about radish sprouts, for example.

“Radish sprouts are the best,” she says enthusiastically. “What is so nice about them is that you have the best of both worlds: an herb and a spice in a presentation that reminds you of a lettuce.”

Chef-owners of Asian-influenced restaurants say there’s nothing new about using shoots, and more than a century ago the taste value in young plants was appreciated in Chinese and Japanese cuisine.

Stan Frankenthaler, of the Asian-inspired Salamander in Boston, has used radishes, lentils, broccoli, sunflowers and pea shoots. One of his current dishes is wok-fried steak with a medley of various vegetable shoots. Following traditional Korean recipes, Frankenthaler even has used garlic shoots in kimchee, a spicy Korean pickled side dish.

Salamander also mixes lentil and soybean sprouts in baked breads. Frankenthaler says that beyond affecting the texture, the sprouts add a nutty after-taste, especially in a walnut-wheat bread.

Frankenthaler says many guests like the young shoots far more than they like the mature plant. “I have an easier time getting my customers to eat broccoli shoots than I do broccoli,” he explains.

But few restaurants are as inventive as Salamander with sprouts or use as many of them as does Norman Van Aken’s Norman’s, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Coral Gables, Ha. Realizing that sprouts are as good to look at on a plate as they are to eat, Van Aken uses edible flowers and micro-greens. Among his products are young chrysanthemums, which produce a flower about the size of a dime; kohlrabi, a miniature green at maturity that is harvested even smaller; bull’s blood, a lettuce that produces a maroon shoot when it is young; opal basil, packed with a pungent basil aftertaste; and tri-colored amaranths, normally a grain imported from South America.

Forley says she was a big fan of pea tendrils, perhaps the best-known vegetable shoot and the likely source that ignited the trend.

But they have become so widespread on restaurant menus that they are now prosaic and no longer hold her interest, she admits.

Other chefs, however, say pea tendrils should not be discounted just because of their popularity.

Executive chef Cory Schreiber of Wildwood, which serves up Pacific Northwestern cuisine in Portland, Ore., says he serves pea tendrils in several dishes. One of them is halibut.

When served with young peas, the tendrils add a richer flavor complement to the fish, Schreiber says. His only complaint about pea tendrils is that they have a short growing season.

At Jean Georges in Manhattan, perhaps New York’s priciest restaurant with its $ 112 check averages, pea shoots factor into a house signature. That dish is lobster, pumpkin seed and fenugreek broth with pea shoots.

Dean Moore, the executive chef at Boston’s Top Of The Hub, uses pea tendrils in a dish of grilled stripped bass fillet with roasted corn, corn emulsion and lobster roe.

“We like pea tendrils because they’re local and they’re seasonal,” Moore says. “There are so many things you can do with it: use it as a garnish, use it in salad, saute it like spinach. It has such a mild taste and adds a nice color.”

In Dallas, Dani, a gourmet caterer, used pea tendrils in an Asian-inspired shrimp salad. Not only do the pea tendrils offer a flavor and textural variance from the shrimp, but they add more color to the plate.

Besides looking good, young plants often are healthful.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore have found a highly concentrated source of an anti-cancer agent called sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts. In 3-day-old broccoli sprouts, the concentration of sulforaphane, which intensifies the body’s natural cancer-fighting network and reduces the risk of developing the disease, is 20 to 50 times the amount in mature broccoli heads.

But Maudeen Nelson, a nutritionist with the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University, cautions that sprouts and tendrils generally have less nutrient value than the plant would have had if it had reached harvest stage. Almost all plants increase nutrient value with maturity because the vitamins are being biosynthesized,” she says.

But Nelson adds that the longer a plant stays in the ground, the more bitter it becomes.

“What you also get over time, as the plant matures, is higher amounts of other things like alkaloids. If you let romaine lettuce mature until the shoots grow flowers, you actually get a latex base to the leaf just like rubber, and it is very bitter.”

Whatever nutrient qualities may be discovered, chefs hardly are slowing down their search for vegetable shoots.

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