Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown aren't phased by the winter weather thanks to their crop of planter-grown micro-vegetables.
The truth be known, there are no seasons in our kitchen. We grow fresh greens for food and drink throughout the year. Another truth to be revealed: you don’t have to splash out £8-9K on a monolithic Evogro Plant Growing Cabinet to harvest healthy herbs and leaves in the dead of winter. We got inspired to do our research after a mid-winter trip to Tokyo where we encountered the hydroponic farm on the 11th floor of Japan’s oldest stationery and art supply shop, Itoya. On the floor above this urban farm, this mecca of arts and crafts supplies (with smatterings of travel and kitchen gear as well as model kits and toys wedged in for good measure) sports its own upscale café. The freshest salads are served with an array of extras and are about as natural and pesticide-free as it gets, with a carbon footprint of fewer than 50 footsteps.
With this experience tucked away in our minds and stomachs we went home and found a couple of Grow Light Garden planters from Greenfingers. com. Running on two 24W fluorescent, full-spectrum bulbs that are buzz and flicker-free thanks to the ballasted housing design, we run these low- electrical units 24/7 throughout the winter and spring. There’s a bonus: these units are also self-watering. The capillary matting transports water up from the planter reservoir on to the flat stand where the individual growing trays take up moisture through drainage holes. The ultimate goal of this exercise? For drinks, a harvest of micro-greens that generate as quickly and as frequently as possible without us walking out the door.
The secondary goal: the pick of the choicest leafy greens for garnishes and table nibbles, snipped and served up à-la-minute. What are micro-greens exactly? They are essentially sprouted seeds that are allowed to grow a little further, until the first leaves emerge and fully form. Here, you get intense flavour, but not just the peppery vegetal character of sprouts which are all stem and root. Here you get an intense burst of flavour of the plant from the concentrated flavour in those leaves. The texture of micro-greens is much softer than with mature plants as well, so they practically melt in a cocktail shaker and they can be used as garnish without guests running into plant stems.
Surprisingly, some of the most popular plants for micro-greens for eating also work well in drinks: pea shoots, radish sprouts (looking for an intense and fiery sprout? Try these or wasabi), and sunflower sprouts for anyone who has ever put a few drops of oil on top of a cocktail. Wheatgrass is one of the few we have struggled with in drinks as it is remarkably fibrous even when tiny. However, if you want an intense, freshly mown lawn flavour, nothing beats freshly juiced wheatgrass.
Bloody Marys, Bloody Caesars, Bull Shots and other savoury drinks practically cry out for micro-greens such as sweet beetroot, intense basil, crisp celery, pungent chives, and distinctive coriander. Shiso, both red and green, make excellent and versatile micro-greens paired with clear spirits. A favourite sip we created about a decade ago involves making a syrup of runny honey, caster sugar, red shiso, and a splash of fresh lemon juice mixed one part to three parts London dry gin. The complex flavour of red shiso blends beetroot, cumin, ginger, and cinnamon in a compact, colourful blast. Third, fill your seed trays only half full with potting compost and spread a thin layer of moistened seeds on top.
Want more inspiration? Fennel micro-greens, any of the myriad mint varieties such as pineapple mint, ginger mint, chocolate mint, peppermint, spearmint – all of these make for beautiful tiny presentation leaves. Wasabina mustard greens and hawk claw chili greens can set you on a new direction if you are in search of a unique source of spicy heat. Now here are a few basics for getting your micro-garden growing. First, locate local online sources for your seeds. Nicky’s Nursery and Chiltern Seeds are our go-to seed suppliers for everything from comfy and common to wildly exotic. Seeds of Italy is another great supplier of important crops such as basil (more than a few varieties) and lemon balm. Second, soak your seeds in a dish of tepid water – one per seed variety – for at least eight hours, preferably overnight, to soften the husk. Third, fill your seed trays only half full with potting compost and spread a thin layer of moistened seeds on top.
Lightly sprinkle a thin cover layer of potting compost and moisten with water using a sprayer. Finally, place the trays on your planter base, switch on the lights and fill the base and bottom with water so the wicking action is stimulated. With the best of green thumb practices, you should see sprouting within three days. With some seeds, patience is key. Allow a week for more stubborn seeds. Then start snipping the fruits of your labours. In the meantime, we have been using the bounty of fruits and flowers we ran through the dehydrators over summer. Our £48 Severin Fruit Dryer was always loaded and running so in demand we broke down and purchased a Luvele Food Dehydrator for backup. We could easily fill a third one when the apple harvest comes in, but feel perhaps three is getting carried away.
If you don’t yet have a dehydrator, just get one. They’re great for dried citrus and ginger garnishes for a start. But then we can’t resist packing a Kilner Clip-Top Drinks Dispenser with a kilo of mixed home-dried and store-bought fruits (apples, damsons, cherries, figs, prunes, apricots), a stick of cinnamon, six whole cloves, and a litre of London dry gin. Steep this mixture for a week, checking the spirit level daily and topping up if need be. Place a glass under the tap and decant a quick nip of Gin Fruit when the mood strikes. Replenish the gin after every service. Replenish the fruit after three weeks. That should get you through while you’re waiting for sprigs of fresh inspiration from your planters for the shaker.
See you in the spring.