Micro leaves, also known as micro greens, seedlings or cresses, are the young versions of herbs or salad leaves harvested at seed leaf or first true leaf stage. They are available all year round in many varieties, from favourite British flavours such as celery and pea shoots to more exotic varieties including purple shiso and red amaranth.
Prized for their intense flavours, eye-catching colours and tenderness, these miniatures are used and eaten whole so there's almost no preparation and very little waste. Not only do they enhance presentation, they provide a novel way of adding flavours to a dish.
"They deliver a really intense flavour that you're not expecting," says Simon Coles, food service account manager at fresh herbs supplier VHB. "The key is in understanding the flavour profile and what it can add to a dish."
Several chefs had an opportunity to discuss the flavour profiles of WOW! micro leaves, the result of a partnership between VHB and specialist grower Westland Nurseries, at a tasting held at New Covent Garden Market. Here, Coles guides us through some popular varieties.
Flavour Peppery, nutty
Use with Salads, soup, pasta, sandwiches, tomatoes, cheese, pesto, seafood, carpaccio, eggs
Verdict "A similar flavour profile to the big leaves but with less product needed."
Flavour Earthy, mild beetroot
Use with Stir-fries, salads, egg dishes, garnish, amuse-bouche
Verdict "With its bright red stem, this one is all about colour. If a dish is a bit of a plain Jane, it adds a real kick to it."
Red Vein Sorrel
Flavour Lemony, apples
Use with Oily fish, cheese, eggs, potatoes, chicken
Verdict "A good substitute for a lemon wedge with fish."
Flavour Celery, lemony
Use with Salads, soups, Bloody Mary, gumbo
Verdict "Delivers the same flavour profile as celery stalks but works better than stalks in salads and on cheeseboards."
Salad Leaf Pea Shoots/Tendril Pea shoots
Flavour Freshly podded peas
Use with Seafood, salad, stir-fries
Verdict "The flavour you get when eating peas straight out of the pod. The leaf can be used hot and the tendril as garnish. Works well on premium fish and chips."
Flavour Spicy, peppery
Use with Tomatoes, soft cheeses, salads, pesto, pizza, pasta, strawberries
Verdict "Where shredded basil leaf would go black, this remains a green vibrant plant and there are no stalks to strip out."
Flavour Cumin, cinnamon, anise
Use with East Asian cuisine, sushi, salads, soups, seafood, tempura, pickles
Verdict "Gives the colour and flavour without needing to cook in the spices. Good for sushi."
Red Mustard Frills
Flavour Potato, then fiery mustard
Use with Salads, beef, sandwiches, cheese, garlic, honey, stir-fries
Verdict "Has a double flavour impact. First there's a potato flavour, followed by mustard."
what the chefs said
Steven Walpole, Gate Gourmet London
"I have been an avid fan of micro leaves and cresses for a few years. The pea shoot varieties are fabulous and have different flavour profiles. We use micro leaves across our premium cabins for a lot of the top airlines. They hold better under the conditions and in the meal kits than standard salad leaves and garnishes. Flavour profiles change up in the air and under a pressurised cabin condition, so the fact they give such a strong intense burst of flavour makes them a real winner. They are also great for the crew as they are easy to handle and help lift presentation."
Robert Thompson, chef-patron, the Hambrough, Ventnor, Isle of Wight
"Micro leaves give so many options for adding intense flavour with controlled presentation. They look very pretty and add visual excitement, especially to starters and appetisers. My favourite variety is the red vein sorrel for its delicate flavour and stunning leaf that works really well with the fish dishes we do here. I also like red amaranth for the colour."
Daniel Jones, head chef, the Harp Inn, Powys
"I am a massive fan of using micro leaves in both sweet and savoury dishes and my customers love them. They say that having celery leaf on my local Welsh cheese slate is much fresher than the typical celery sticks. I use the mustard frills on a pan-fried Welsh Black rump steak and I am developing a recipe for Purple Shiso Marshmallows to accompany our own speciality coffee. The wonderful cumin and anise flavours work extremely well with the organic and Fairtrade dark chocolate in my mocha."
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