2018-04-01 / Dishing

Sprout It Out

Isabel Kumerz’s microgreens are big on nutrients — and flavor.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

Isabel Kumerz works out of an art studio that has morphed into a greenhouse. Hanging on the wall across from racks of microgreens is one of her signature creations: a mixed-media painting entitled “Water as Gold.”  Water is a theme that flows through her life, a current that sometimes takes her in unexpected directions.

On a Thursday when it sounded as if the earth would crack open from the roar of a steady, pounding rain, Kumerz, a Spanish artist who moved to the United States in 2001 to further her art education, discussed Happy Valley Greens, a new microgreens business that has temporarily taken her away from her art, yet has reinforced the sacredness of water.

“Where you find water there is always a potential of life,” reads a quote on the artist statement page of her personal website.

In the case of microgreens, life comes quickly. Microgreens come from the same seeds as full-grown vegetables, but are harvested about two to three weeks after germination.

The quick growing period combined with the fact that she could grow the plants indoors year-round appealed to Kumerz, who always wanted to start a business involving plants. “I thought about medicinal plants and that’s still in my mind, but you have to wait. I started looking at the internet for businesses and microgreens came up.”

These tiny plants require a lot of work. After a few hours with Kumerz, it’s easy to see why just 3 ounces of pea shoots costs $6.  

At 11:30 a.m., surrounded by trays of microgreens and bags of certified organic seeds, she contemplates a list of tasks, charted meticulously on a spreadsheet she created to keep herself organized. She’s already soaked the pea shoots and watered the wasabi, arugula and radish. After I leave, she will plant 10 trays of sunflower shoots (after sanitizing each tray), list her products on the Friends & Farmers Online Market and, around 5 p.m., water everything all over again.

On harvest day, the sunflower shoots will be washed by hand and air-dried. During the washing process, Kumerz must pinch off the seed coats that are still attached to many of the leaves. Is the process meditative? I ask. Not when customers are waiting for their orders and she’s in a rush to get them delivered, she answers with a laugh.

“Online they say you can grow microgreens in one hour a day,” she says. “Yeah, right.”

In November 2017, Kumerz, who moved to the area three years ago, sent a simple message to a few friends about a new and exciting business “growing organic tiny greens.” Since then, Happy Valley Greens has morphed into a full-time operation that has taken her product to customers at McLanahan’s, Nature’s Pantry and the Friends & Farmers Online Market. She also sells directly to a list of about 30 people, driving the greens to her customers’ homes the same day they’re harvested — even if that means recruiting a friend to do the driving after her car broke down. (The friend was repaid in microgreens.)

While she still teaches classes at the Art Alliance, the business has taken over her life, pushing her artwork to the side. Not that Kumerz is complaining. She relishes the opportunity to create food, especially one that may have potent health benefits.

Researchers with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the United States Department of Agriculture studied the level of nutrients like Vitamin C, E, K and beta carotene found in 25 different types of microgreens. Their research indicated that the microgreens contained four to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts. The numbers were so high, the researchers suspected a mistake. So they double-checked their research and came up with the same results.

“I’ve never been a greens woman,” Kumerz says. “The thing about microgreens, I have to eat less to get all the vitamins.”

Commonly served on top of sandwiches or as garnish in restaurants, the greens can be easily incorporated into your dinner repertoire. In the past week, I’ve added wasabi mustard greens to my burritos (the wasabi kicks in at the end), sunflower shoots to my salads and pea shoots to my scrambled eggs. Kumerz recommends pairing the wasabi greens with “seriously sharp” cheddar and the fava beans with stir-fry. My vegetarian daughter loves snacking on the pea shoots, which she ordered us to buy after she sampled some at a friend’s house. (Pea shoot peer pressure? Yep, it’s a thing.)

Surprisingly, Kumerz has had little luck getting her microgreens into the hands of chefs. “State College isn’t ready for microgreens,” a chef friend told her after she struck out at several restaurants. No disrespect to her friend, but I’d like to think otherwise. Give it time: I can envision locally grown microgreens in several area restaurants.

One attribute that doesn’t help: The life span of a microgreen is shorter than its growth period. These delicate nutrition powerhouses won’t last beyond seven days. “If you don’t cut them very sharp, they die faster.”

(Not long after Kumerz began growing the microgreens, she searched her home for the right tool to cut them and landed on her husband’s barber razor; she ended up ordering three more — and a sharpening belt — from a Pakistani brand on eBay.)

Kumerz likes this dressing on her sunflower microgreens. “It’s to die for.”

1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. tamari or soy sauce
3 Tbsp. orange marmalade

Kumerz isn’t stopping with microgreens; she’s contemplating expanding into medicinal plants. But she wants to start slow and small.

And one day she hopes to move the greenhouse to the basement and reclaim a space for her art. In the meantime, she has landed on a way to infuse her utilitarian venture with a touch of creativity. At the end of each week, after days of soaking, watering, planting, harvesting and packing, she prints out her black and white Happy Valley Greens labels and joyfully paints them with colorful acrylics. •SCM

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