Luscious, local lettuce and herbs line grocery shelves

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05/06/2014 1:00 PM

05/16/2014 1:55 PM

Standing in his hydroponic greenhouse, Ryan Eddinger looks more like a flower grower than a farmer.

The sun-filled greenhouse at

Two Sisters Farm

, a short drive west of Lawrence, is packed wall-to-wall with blooming rows of peony-like bibb lettuce heads, delicate red oak leaves, curly kale and leafy tendrils of purple mizuna and s carlet f rill mustard greens.

“Sometimes I wonder if I have a repressed florist in me,” Eddinger says as he admires the lush foliage he sprouted from tiny seeds.

In September 2011, Eddinger and wife Caroline started Two Sisters Farm on 20 acres in Lecompton. The farm, named after the couple’s daughters Stella and Sophia, has since become a sought-after supplier of lettuce and greens to an impressive list of Kansas City-area restaurants.

Lettuce grown at Two Sisters Farm makes a delicious — and beautiful — base for springy salads at restaurants and at home.

Eddinger grows lettuce 365 days a year in his hydroponic greenhouse. Instead of sprouting seeds in soil, the farmer uses rockwool, a growing medium made from basalt rock. Once root systems develop, he places the plants in white plastic channels that circulate oxygen- and nutrient-rich water through their roots.

This “nutrient film” technique helps the plants grow quickly and uses less water than traditional growing methods. Eddinger estimates he would use three to four times as much water to grow the same amount of lettuce in soil.

Cal-Ann Farms

in Basehor, 20 minutes west of Kansas City, also uses hydroponics to grow herbs such as basil, mint and rosemary. Like Two Sisters Farm, Cal-Ann leaves the root systems of its herbs intact, so the plants are “living” right until you snip their leaves to make pesto or a salad.

And some local Hy-Vee stores now sell hydroponically grown lettuce from

4 Star Hydroponics

in St. John, about an hour west of Hutchinson, Kan.

Another hydroponic farm is in the works for Kansas City: In March 2013, New York City-based

BrightFarms announced a partnership

with the Port Authority of Kansas City to build a $4 million, 100,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse just east of the Heart of America Bridge, along the banks of the Missouri River.

BrightFarms spokesman Toby Tiktinsky says the company is close to announcing a partnership with a local retailer that will sell produce grown in the Kansas City greenhouse, which has yet to be built.

Meanwhile, Eddinger is growing his business step by step. The former criminal defense attorney takes a do-it-yourself approach. He built his 136-by-44-foot greenhouse by hand, right down to the plumbing and wiring, while still working as an attorney in Topeka.

“There was a lot of working until 3 in the morning with a flashlight strapped to my head,” Eddinger says.

Eddinger now operates Two Sisters Farm full time. Farming isn’t foreign to Eddinger, who grew up raising cattle, pigs, beans and corn. But hydroponic farming is quite different. Eddinger doesn’t use herbicides — weeds rarely sprout in rockwool — and instead of pesticides, he uses ladybugs.

“They’re voracious feeders,” he says. “Ladybugs are your buddies, man.”

The lack of dirt in the greenhouse makes for clean-looking lettuce that doesn’t require thorough washing. As Eddinger walks between the rows, checking for clogged water lines, he picks off leaves here and there and pops them in his mouth to test flavor and water content.

Lately, the farmer is most excited about what he calls “juvenile” greens: They’re bigger and leafier than microgreens. “Chefs love these,” he says, pointing to a 6-inch-high burst of purple and green shoots.

T.K. Peterson, chef and owner at

Merchants Pub Plate

in Lawrence, uses the blended greens in his house salad. “The flavor of his lettuce is phenomenal,” Peterson says. “I kind of let him experiment with us. He’s always coming up with a new blend, and he knows I’ll buy it.”

Peterson cuts the spiciness of the blended greens with briney marinated artichokes, olives, tomatoes and deliciously sharp feta goat cheese from Goddard Farm, just down the road from Two Sisters Farm. A light herb vinaigrette brings out the fresh flavor of the lettuce, which varies dramatically in color and texture.

Two Sisters Farm’s soft baby arugula, which tastes less pungent and bitter than conventionally grown varieties, is the star of Merchants Pub Plate’s sweet strawberry salad. The colorful salad ($9) is topped with cashews, thinly sliced fennel and fresh Goddard cheese. Light, lemony dressing adds more brightness to the springy dish.

At

Bluebird Bistro

, owner Jane Zieha tosses Two Sisters Farm’s leafy red-and-green oak lettuce with blueberry vinaigrette to make the restaurant’s house salad ($8 for a small or $12 for a large), topped with Maytag blue cheese and candied pecans.

Zieha also dresses the farm’s tender baby kale with rye whiskey vinaigrette and tops it with hunks of organic apple and onion. The restaurant owner, who tries to buy as many local ingredients as possible, says Two Sisters is the only farm she can buy from year-round.

As Eddinger builds relationships with local chefs hungry for his products, he has had to cut back on sales to retailers such as Hy-Vee.

Instead of growing bigger, Eddinger wants to grow better. Recently he started growing Little Gem lettuce, a smaller and sweeter version of romaine. The lettuce looks like an oversized rose with curly emerald petals. Eddinger says a local chef he works with wants to serve them to customers whole, with just a drizzle of dressing.

As for Eddinger, “I’m not much of a chef,” he says. The farmer likes his lettuce fresh and plain. Standing in his greenhouse, he plucks a couple of delicate arugula leaves and holds them out in his calloused hand.

“Tastes good, doesn’t it?”

Where to find Two Sisters Farm lettuce

Two Sisters Farm

supplies lettuce and greens to several local restaurants, including Bluebird Bistro, Webster House, Michael Smith Restaurant, Novel, Port Fonda, Story in Prairie Village, Renee Kelly’s Harvest in Shawnee, and 715 and Merchants Pub Plate in Lawrence.

You can also buy Two Sisters Farm produce at the Overland Park Farmers Market, the Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Checkers Foods in Lawrence, and two Hen House locations: 6900 W. 135th St. in Overland Park and 11721 Roe Ave. in Leawood.

Barbecued Chinese Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Iceberg lettuce works in this recipe, but consider subbing living bibb (or butter) lettuce from Two Sisters Farm. The sturdier leaves at the core of the lettuce head make for the best wraps.

Makes 4 servings

2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, chopped 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 pounds thin-cut chicken breast or tenders 2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil Coarse salt and coarse black pepper 3 cloves garlic, chopped 1 inch of gingerroot, finely chopped or grated (optional) Zest of 1 orange 1/2 red bell pepper, diced small 1 small can, 6 to 8 ounces, sliced water chestnuts, drained and chopped 3 scallions, chopped 3 tablespoons hoisin sauce, available on Asian foods aisle of market 1/2 large head living bibb lettuce Wedges of orange, for garnish

Remove tough stems from mushrooms and brush with damp towel to clean. Slice mushrooms. Chop chicken into small pieces.

Preheat a large skillet or wok to high. Add oil to hot pan. Add chicken to the pan and sear meat by stir frying 1 to 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to season, then garlic and ginger. Cook 1 minute more. Add zest, bell pepper, water chestnuts and scallions. Cook another minute, continuing to stir fry mixture. Add hoisin and toss to coat the mixture evenly. Transfer the hot chopped barbecued chicken to serving platter and pile lettuce leaves alongside. Add wedged oranges to platter to garnish.

To eat, pile spoonfuls into lettuce leaves, wrapping lettuce around fillings, and squeeze an orange wedge over.

Per serving: 317 calories (27 percent from fat), 9 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 88 milligrams cholesterol, 20 grams carbohydrates, 38 grams protein, 305 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber. Source: FoodNetwork.com Butter Lettuce With Apples, Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds

Any tender spring lettuce makes a good bed for crunchy hunks of apple, walnut pieces and juicy pomegranate seeds.

Makes 4 servings

For the vinaigrette:

2 tablespoons cider vinegar 1 tablespoon honey 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard 1/3 cup vegetable oil Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:

2 heads of butter (also known as bibb) lettuce leaves, gently torn 1 1/2 cups store-bought glazed walnuts 1 Honeycrisp or Fuji apple, quartered, cored, thinly sliced Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 1 cup pomegranate seeds 1/4 cup tarragon leaves 1/2 cup crumbled Stilton or Maytag blue cheese (about 2 ounces)

Vinaigrette:

Whisk vinegar, honey, shallot and mustard in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Season vinaigrette to taste with salt and pepper.

Salad:

Place lettuce in a large bowl. Add vinaigrette, walnuts and apple; toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, tarragon and cheese.

Per serving: 595 calories (68 percent from fat), 45 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 13 milligrams cholesterol, 32 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams protein, 265 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber. Source: Bon Appetit Strawberry and Arugula Salad with Crispy Prosciutto

The baby arugula produced by Two Sisters Farm has a mild, slightly peppery flavor that stands up to sweet strawberries and tangy goat cheese. If you want a hyperlocal salad, use goat cheese from Goddard Farm just down the road from Two Sisters Farm or fresh sheep’s milk cheese from Green Dirt Farm in Weston.

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar 1 1/2 teaspoons honey 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered 1/3 cup sliced red onion Olive oil cooking spray 4 thin slices prosciutto (about 2 ounces) 6 cups baby arugula (about 5 ounces) 2 ounces goat cheese or feta, crumbled

Whisk together vinegar, honey, oil, salt and black pepper in a large serving bowl. Add berries and red onion; let stand 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly coat a seasoned cast-iron skillet with cooking spray or use a nonstick pan. Heat over moderately high heat. Add prosciutto in one layer and cook about 5 minutes, turning, until golden brown and crispy. Transfer to a plate to cool; crumble and reserve.

Place the baby arugula in a large serving bowl with the cheese; add berries, red onion and balsamic dressing. Toss gently until just coated. Divide the salad among 4 serving plates and top evenly with the cooked prosciutto.

Per serving: 159 calories (55 percent from fat), 10 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 25 milligrams cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 574 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber. Source: Health

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