March 3, 2024

Greens from Northport, All Year Long

Taps into NoMi's need for a nutrient-packed taste of spring — in the dead of winter.
By Ross Boissoneau | Feb. 23, 2019

Baby basil. Tiny little leeks. Miniature radishes, super-small cilantro. Linda Szarkowski grows those and more at her facility in Northport. She shares the bounty of Green Spirit Living Microgreens with eager culinary adventurers around the area, at farm markets, through her CSA, and at various eateries.
 
So why microgreens? And what the heck is a microgreen anyway? Start with the latter question. Think of microgreens as a midway point between sprouts and the popular baby greens.

“Sprouts are grown in a jar, and you eat the entire thing,” said Szarkowski. “Microgreens are grown in soil or hydroponically, and you don’t eat the bottom portion.”
 
As to the why, there are a number of reasons. Taste. Appearance. And hey, they’re good for you. “It’s raw, living food — all nutrition,” Szarkowski said. That’s not just her opinion, either. Healthline.com says microgreens often contain higher nutrient levels than more mature vegetable greens. MedicalNewsToday.com agrees, and goes even further, stating “Research has shown that microgreens do contain a higher concentration of many nutrients when compared with the mature, fully grown vegetables or herbs. Several studies have demonstrated the high level of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that microgreens contain. Microgreens are also rich in enzymes, which enable them to be more easily digested.”
 
For Szarkowski, the evolution began when she became acquainted with healthy eating. She dove into raw foods in the early 2000s, eventually going to the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Fort Bragg, California. She then started teaching classes in the Chicago area, and became the raw food chef at the Chicago Diner. She eventually started a weekly prepared meal plan, similar to Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. But with a twist: “Mine was all raw food. Meals were prepared and ready.”
 
It was when she vacationed in northern Michigan that she decided to try something different, somewhere different. “I came up here and fell in love with the area. I closed my business in Chicago and moved.”

Reluctant to go the prepared meal route again, she worked some part-time jobs, including a stint at local raw juicery Press On Juice, where she expanded its food offerings. She also taught classes and worked with private clients. She had been growing her own greens and sprouts when she saw a video on YouTube about growing microgreens.

Green Spirit Living Microgreens in Northport debuted early last year.
 
Now that she’s comfortable with the growing side, she’s working on distribution and educating potential customers. Unsure whether the growing greens are sprouts, seedlings, or whatever, first-time customers aren’t sure how to care for them or how to use them. Szarkowski delivers them on a bed of coconut coir fiber mats, which she’s also grown on food-grade plastic trays. As long as the end-users keep the growing medium wet, they’ll stay healthy for a week or more.
 
Where to use them? The microgreens easily lend themselves to replacements for sprouts atop salads. Adding them to sandwiches or burgers is a natural. Depending on the variety, they might add a spicy kick or a mild taste, always with some additional crunch and color. You can throw them in with scrambled eggs or tofu, top soups or stews, or simply drop them atop any entrée. Just make sure you add them immediately before serving. “You don’t want to cook the nutrients out,” said Szarkowski.
 
While she’s had some success at farm markets, Szarkowski sees local restaurants and folks who take part in her CSA as her best potential customers. Among the eateries she’s working with in northern Michigan are the Cook’s House, The Towne Plaza, Sugar to Salt, Red Ginger, Figs in Lake Leelanau, and the Tribune in Northport. “The Riverside Inn was one of my best,” she said of the landmark Leland hotel and restaurant, which was damaged by fire and won’t reopen until later this year.
 
Randy Chamberlain, co-owner and chef at Blu in Glen Arbor, is one of her newest customers. He said the ability to provide fresh greens for his customers in the off-season is huge.

“While I’d never say I’m farm-to-table, I put a great importance on using local foods. Perishable greens in the winter is a challenge in Glen Arbor. You can get snowed out, or we’ll close if it’s not safe for our staff or customers. So having perishable greens is difficult.”
 
So difficult, in fact, that Chamberlain began eschewing greens altogether. Until Szarkowski came along, he was making salads featuring beets, apples, butternut squash, and other root vegetables — things grown locally that are wintering over. By utilizing the microgreens, Chamberlain is bringing back greens to complement the other ingredients. And, because the plants are still growing, Chamberlain is able to harvest them as he needs them, without worrying about whether they’ll spoil if the restaurant has to close or customers stay home.
 
“I was in the kitchen of Sugar to Salt, and they had a tray of herbs. Jonathan and Stephanie [S2S owners Jonathan Dayton and Stephanie Lee Wiitala] are good friends. They were chopping off and using what they needed. I said, ‘That’s the coolest damn thing I’ve seen.’”
 
As the plants are still growing, they do need some care until they’re used, but it’s minimal. “In the summer, if it’s hot or humid, you may want to put them in the fridge. If it’s air-conditioned, you don’t need to. You do need to water it,” said Szarkowski.
 
“In the tray they’re much more durable. I get a good eight to ten days . They’re still fresh as long has you care for them,” said Chamberlain.
 
Though she grows upwards of 15 varieties, Szarkowski said she does have her own favorites. “I love the cilantro. It has amazing flavor. Broccoli has super nutrients. Leek have a very strong flavor, and red cabbage is vibrant,” she said.
 
Learn more about microgreens and get free recipes at www.greenspiritliving.com.

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