Miami Chefs Go Mad for Micro Veggies
BY VICTORIA PESCE ELLIOTT
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While harvesting in the school garden, nine-year-old Rosie pulled up a radish the length of a paper clip and as thin as a No. 2 pencil, cooing, “Oh, my god! This is the cutest thing ever. Can we keep it?” “You could put it in your dollhouse,” said her 11-year-old sister. “Or I could just eat it,” she announced as she lunged for it mouth first, snapping the crispy pink root clean off. Leave it to the cute factor to get us to eat our veggies.
For the last few years, we have seen micro greens scattered on everything from fancy salads to tiramisu, but these days the shrink factor has spread to the vegetable patch, as well. On tables at many restaurants over the past few months, I have often felt like Alice after drinking the unmarked bottle. I’ve nibbled cauliflower florets the size of marbles and beets no bigger than blueberries. Leeks are showing up as small as matchsticks and radishes like BBs.
Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, whose Tudor House at the Dream South Beach hotel has been using dozens of these minute plant products, feels that the wow factor at the table is a big reason to include them on the plates. He says guests “love them because they know they are specially grown and usually organic, and they taste remarkable.” They are known as micros—not minis or petites, which are small but not tiny—and are prized not only for their unique flavor but also for their, well, cuteness. Tudor House executive chef Jamie DeRosa scatters the rosy-pink radish halves confetti-like over branzino.
At The Villa by Barton G, executive chef Jeff O’Neill crowns his vegetable salad with an array of the jewel-like plants, including red and gold beets, breakfast radishes, Romanesco, orange cauliflower, white asparagus, peas, hothouse currant tomatoes, bronze fennel, bok choy hearts, purple onions, wild rhubarb, and cucumber with blossoms still intact. “We use mini veggies on other dishes, as well, but the heirloom salad celebrates these wonderful items, and showcases them as the gifts that they are,” says O’Neill. Various flavors can be teased out of produce at different stages of development. Joel Huff, the chef de cuisine at Azul at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami, experiments with die-size strawberries that are still hard and green. “We use the green strawberries, and they have that sour flavor when we pickle them.” He uses them on a crudo of Japanese Hokkaido scallop with white ponzu sauce and shiso leaves to create a tangy plate of contrasts.
These Lilliputian delights are showing up in home gardens, too. “Growing micro vegetables is a great way to pack a lot of nutrients and flavor into a small package, allowing you to grow your plants in a small space as well as harvest them in a short time,” explains Alison Walker, manager of education programs at Coral Gables’ Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Although those with green thumbs usually squire their micros by plucking ordinary crops (such as zucchini, parsnips, radishes, and turnips) from the vine before they reach full maturity, there are plenty of new dwarf varieties with which to experiment. Local growers, such as Teena Borek of the prolific Redlands farm Teena’s Pride, offer thumb-size eggplants as well as tiny peppers, tomatoes, and squash. She is always experimenting with new ways to satisfy her chef clients’ creativity and curiosity. “Ocean Reef,” she says, “uses micro everything,” referring to the members-only club in Key Largo. Paradise Farms’ Gabriele Marewski agrees that chefs want smaller and smaller produce. She proudly pulls pinky-size, organic carrots in an array of colors reminiscent of a Monet canvas whose flavors range from sweet to deeply earthy, delighting chefs throughout Miami.
But must you make a reservation or trek to an inland farm to experience the growing phenomenon? Certainly not—the small wonders have begun showing up right in your local grocery store. Alongside those baby carrots, these days you may also find thumb-size zucchini and plum-like sweet potatoes. “They are very convenient. They have great flavor, and make a dish look very beautiful without very much work,” Huff remarks.
The question is, what is suddenly fueling this demand? “all chefs want some uniform thing that they can display their artistry around and that can really elevate the aesthetic level of their cuisine,” says tyler gray, co-owner of mikuni wild harvest, a boutique food purveyor for top restaurants and specialty food outlets around the country. According to gray, there days, more and more farmers are learning to cultivate the seed stock and strength necessary to translate a veggie’s flavor despite limited development time in the ground. The result? An ever-varied (and growing) array of delicious and healthful ways to eat our daily five. Call it the next tiny thing.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM BRINSON; FOOD STYLING BY ED GABRIELS FOR HALLEY RESOURCES.
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.