The Jan. 11 meeting of the Southern Alleghenies chapter of the American Culinary Federation featured fresh vegetables that are locally grown — very tiny ones. Fresh local vegetables are good any time of year but they are scarce in the dead of winter, so this unusual feat lured a dozen or so curious foodies into the backwoods of Tyrone on a cold winter night.
GreenSpace is a developing permaculture center that grows and sells microgreens and distributes them in Pennsylvania and Delaware. The company, founded in 2014 by four friends who shared a lofty sustainability vision as well as a desire to fill a niche in the specialty foods market, operates a grow house not far from the DelGrosso plant and amusement park on Route 220. Winding down an unpaved road into Cherry Hollow, a string of cars tucked into the driveway around the single family home and the drivers found a big surprise when they filed into the lower level.
The farming operation takes place in the basement of the house, where a moderate temperature and strings of LED lights nurture tiny plants that can add visual interest and a powerhouse of nutrition to mid-winter dinner plates. Shelving lined the wall, filled with flats of seedlings, each labeled by variety. Peas, basil, cilantro, fenugreek, beets, sunflower — tiny shoots bravely vied for space in the crowded boxes, leaning toward the light.
Partners Jacob Haqq-Misra, Dan Klock and Brian Moyer were on hand to answer questions and snip and pass out samples of the microgreens that night. Haqq-Misra, sales and operations manager, distributed beautiful promotional materials, including a product list, recipe cards and the 2016 winter price list. The Penn State alum earned his doctorate in meteorology and astrobiology and specializes in nonprofit organization management. He is a research scientist with Blue Marble Space, a 501 (c)(3) public charity dedicated to promoting and enabling international unity through space exploration. Proceeds from GreenSpace help support the research and outreach efforts of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science.
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Dan Klock is the production manager and farmer, with lifelong experience in plant cultivation, gardening and breeding techniques. He explained how the germination to harvest time for the microgreens ranges from 2 to 4 weeks in most cases, so there is rapid turnaround time for each crop. Systems manager Brian Moyer, who earned a bachlor’s degree in biology at Penn State, is experienced in designing sustainable systems and conducting field research. He carefully snipped the greens that night, and passed each one out individually so the chefs could evaluate the differences in each plant. Gina Riggio is the staff nutritionist who currently teaches biology and sustainability courses as an adjunct instructor at Delaware Technical Community College. Though not present that night because of her teaching schedule, she explained via email that there has been research done that indicates that “a much higher nutrient content by weight for microgreens compared to vegetables.” The team is eager to promote more research in this area as their business grows.
The chefs and foodies were eager to sample the plants, which were full of flavor, capturing all the potential of the mature plant in a tiny strand. The basil and the beets were intense and delicious, but the popcorn was most remarkable for the uncanny super sweetness of each shoot. The cilantro microgreens had an interesting texture since the coriander seed hulls stayed attached to the emerging shoots and provided a pleasant crunch.
While GreenSpace sells at the Juniata Farmers Market in Altoona every Friday, the team was very pleased to meet chefs who are determined to make their winter plates more interesting. It’s not many individual shoppers who will be able to afford the retail price of about $8-9 per ounce for microgreens for home use. (The retail price for the popcorn shoots is $9 per half ounce.) But for a commercial venture such as an upscale restaurant, a little topping of microgreens can go a long way to express the fact that the chef is aware of current trends, cares about supporting local growers and wants the customer to experience a delicious and nutritious green treat. Look for microgreens on the plates at the Nittany Lion Inn and Elk Creek Café if the chefs there get their way.
The next meeting of the Southern Alleghenies Chapter of the American Culinary Federation will take place Feb. 8 at State College Area High School. The program presenter is Jack Lyke, a biology teacher working on an exciting aquaponics project in the greenhouse. Attendees will meet at 5:30 p.m. (instead of the usual 7 p.m. meeting time) in Chatter’s Café for snacks before the greenhouse tour. You do not have to be a member of the ACF and there is no charge for the meeting. For more information, contact Zach Lorber at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com. You can also check out their Facebook page, facebook.com/southernalleghenychefs or follow them on Instagram or Twitter @acfsaca.
Find microgreens at the Juniata Farmers’ Market on Fridays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Station Medical Center, 1516 N 9th Ave, Altoona. You can check out GreenSpace’s website to order the microgreens directly, http://growgreenspace.org/, or to see the scope of their nascent endeavor with high hopes.