Optimal flavor starts with superior seeds

In a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, renowned chef and author Dan Barber wrote: “As a chef I can tell you that your meal will be incalculably more delicious if I’m cooking with good ingredients.” This should be self-evident, yet the unfortunate reality is that, in the case of fresh vegetables, optimally good ingredients are not necessarily that easily obtained. According to Barber: “Even the best farmers, if the genetics aren’t there in the seed – if the potential for this really great flavor isn’t there from the outset – then it’s impossible to elicit something that’s not there.” Buying organically grown vegetables from a local farmer certainly helps, but pursuit of optimal flavor ultimately begins with the seeds.

Take the humble cucumber for example. Today’s cucumbers bear little resemblance to the cucumbers of our forebears. The cucumbers we have today are the result of what Dutch breeders did to them. They bred for sweetness, size and water content. In the process the complexity of flavor was lost. Zaid Kurdieh is a farmer in upstate New York who recalls the cucumbers his Lebanese grandmother used to prepare for his lunch and how they perfumed the kitchen. He has saved seeds over the years and when he shared his heirloom cucumber with Barber, he found the flavor “revelatory.”

Fifty years ago there were 1,000 small and family-owned seed companies in the U.S. By 2009 there were fewer than 100. By 2018 most remaining seed companies were fully or partially owned by Monsanto. Last year Monsanto was acquired by the German conglomerate Bayer, making it the world’s largest agrichemical and seed company. Today just four companies control over 60% of all the world’s seed sales. They make herbicides and pesticides and then bio-engineer seeds that can withstand the drench of their chemicals. As a result of a 1980 Supreme Court ruling allowing patents on living organisms, these companies now have a chokehold on what farmers can plant. The vegetables that end up at our grocery stores were engineered for uniformity, shelf life and transportability rather than for flavor.

Nine years ago, vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek of Cornell University was visiting Barber at his world-renowned restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Barber picked up a butternut squash and asked him if he could breed one that tasted better. Mazourek commented that this was the first time he had ever been asked to breed for improved flavor. Mazourek accepted the challenge and the resulting squash was smaller in size, more nutrient-dense and lower in water content than the butternut. And much more flavorful.

Barber was eager to repeat the success of the squash experiment with other vegetables. This led them to breed improved varieties of beets, habanero peppers, potatoes, snow peas and cucumbers. Last year Barber launched Row 7 Seed Company. “Part of the goal of the company is not only to increase the flavor of vegetables: It’s to look at how we, as chefs, can change the culture of eating.” For now, all the profits from seed sales are used to support the plant breeder’s ongoing research.

Initially, seeds were made available for evaluation to a network of 70 chefs in the U.S. and abroad. Chef Michael Gallina of Vicia in St. Louis was one of the first to offer Row 7 vegetables. He was previously chef de cuisine at Barber’s Blue Hill and played a role in the development of the new squash variety. He recalls numerous trips to Cornell to talk with the plant breeders on his days off from the restaurant. At Nonesuch restaurant in Oklahoma City, our collaborating farmers are starting to provide the restaurant with Row 7’s 7082 Experimental Cucumber. The flavor difference is truly striking and elevates the humble cucumber to center stage rather than merely playing a supporting role.

Grilled Cucumbers with Fried Dill

4 cucumbers, halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil
Strained yogurt
Sesame vinaigrette (recipe below)
Fried dill (recipe below)


Preheat a ridged cast iron grill pan over high heat.
Arrange the cucumber halves, cut-side up, on a plate. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with the rice wine vinegar. Marinate for 10 minutes. Pat the cut surface with a paper towel.

Lightly grease the surface of the hot grill with a little oil. Place the cucumber halves, cut-side down, on the grill and cook for two minutes until slightly charred. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Serve with a dollop of strained yogurt, a drizzle of warm sesame vinaigrette and a garnish of fried dill.

For the sesame vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Heat all the ingredients gently in a small sauce pot, stirring to combine. Set aside and keep warm.

For the fried dill:
1 cup dill fronds
Vegetable oil for frying

Heat the oil in a medium sauce pot to 325˚F. Drop a few fronds of dill into the oil carefully. (It will sizzle and bubble very actively.) Fry for about 30 seconds, making sure the dill does not turn brown. Remove dill with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel to drain.

Recipe from Dan Barber - Row 7 Seed Company. Reprinted by permission.

Cold Cucumber Soup

3 large cucumbers
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 shallot, chopped
¼ C chopped Italian parsley
2 C plain Greek yogurt
3 T fresh lemon juice
Fresh ground white pepper
Olive oil

Peel and seed the cucumbers.
Finely dice ½ cup of cucumber and reserve for garnishing. Coarsely chop remaining cucumber and put in a blender. Add the garlic, shallot, parsley, yogurt and lemon juice. Blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
Refrigerate, covered, until well-chilled, at least an hour and up to 24 hours.
Right before serving, garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and the reserved diced cucumber.  

Peter Glatz sends greetings from Oklahoma, where the highs are already hitting 100 degrees outside and 96 degrees in the restaurant kitchen.

Illinois Times has provided readers with independent journalism for more than 40 years, from news and politics to arts and culture.

Now more than ever, we’re asking for your support to continue providing our community with real news that everyone can access, free of charge.

We’re also offering a home delivery option as an added convenience for friends of the paper.

Click here to subscribe, or simply show your support for Illinois Times.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment