Perfecting produce

PAUL SMITHS – Culinary students at Paul Smith’s college are getting a first look at a new variety of squash.

Produce is traditionally bred with the needs of growers and shippers in mind. The plants must be robust, as well as disease and pest resistant, and the produce must have a long enough shelf life to withstand the time and damage imposed by the shipping process.

Cooks around the globe have been an afterthought in this process and are usually forced to work with whatever their supplier can get them. Plant breeders with Cornell University’s agriculture program decided to change this. This fall, Paul Smith’s students, along with those at SUNY Cobleskill and Monroe and Niagara community colleges, became the first culinarians ever to work with honeynut squash, a curious cucurbit that is the product of 30 years of selective breeding.

Like most solutions, it all begins with a problem. When chefs said the ridges of buttercup squash were too cumbersome when scooping out the fruit’s delectable flesh – and yes, squash are fruits rather than vegetables – Cornell scientists responded by cross-breeding that variety with the ridgeless butternut. The resulting honeycup looks like a miniature butternut but tastes like a buttercup.

Even though it just left the farm, the newly minted fruit is already inspiring new recipes.

Sarah Longley, an assistant professor at Paul Smith’s, poured a thick, harvest-moon-colored honeynut juice into a wine flute and topped it off with sparkling champagne.

As the frothy head rose to the top of the glass, Longley explained that the primary challenge for a research-and-development chef is to always be in the forefront when it comes to creating new recipes. She pointed to the rim of the flute, which was encrusted in tiny, pumpkin-colored flakes.

“When you juice something, you get the liquids and the solids,” Longley said. “I don’t like to throw anything away, so I’m looking at all this beautiful pulp and thinking it has to be useful for something. So I took the solids and put them in a dehydrator; then I put them in a high-speed blender to pulverize them. That’s where the inspiration came to make the powder.”

The result is a hint of rich squash flavor – a fleeting preview to the earthy-sweet honeynut-champagne concoction.

“When you’re working with the same ingredient but in a different form, it’s bringing the same but different flavor profile, and that creates complexity,” Longely said. “So when we’re looking at creating dishes, we’re always looking at creating layers and complexity in a dish. That’s one way you can do it – introduce the same product but in a different form.”

Creating different forms is what the plant-breeding program is all about, but it isn’t as simple as it sounds. The honeynut actually has deep roots in a squash and cucumber breeding program that began in the 1950s.

Lindsay Wyatt, a graduate student in plant breeding at Cornell, said the breeding process there is still done the old-fashioned way.

“Breeding and genetics work toward improving winter squash fruit and culinary quality,” Wyatt said. “First, we’ll take pollen from one plant and put it on the flower of another plant. It’s nothing that a determined honeybee couldn’t do.”

Honeybees aren’t quite so picky, though. Plant breeders only use plants whose fruit has sought-after traits, like sweet flesh or a smooth exterior.

“When you grow out the next several generations, they have a lot of diversity for different combinations of the traits of the two parent squash, just like how children in a family have different combinations of traits from their parents,” Wyatt said. “We just go through the field and find those plants that have the characteristics we’re looking for. It’s a forced evolution.”

Forced evolution has more to offer than easier-to-handle squash. Wyatt said sweeter squash is more palatable and could inspire a surge in produce-related health. Her theory: If plant geneticists can make squash 10 times more delicious, that many more people will want to eat it.

Wyatt said she and her colleagues, under the direction of Michael Mazourek, an assistant professor in Cornell’s Plant Breeding and Genetics department, are also striving to make squash that is disease and pest resistant. She explained that a disease called powdery mildew has been the bane of many farmers’ crops. It travels through the air and grows on plant leaves, killing them.

“Once the leaves start dying, the plants can’t photosynthesize to make the sugar to put into the squash to make it taste good,” Wyatt said. “If we can make plants that are resistant to the disease using natural genetic variation by using some parents that happen to have a higher disease resistance, we can combat powdery mildew in a natural way.”

Natural is the key word. Wyatt explained that, unlike genetically engineered, or GMO, crops, the techniques employed at Cornell have been used for thousands of years.

“Genetic engineering is when you take a small piece of DNA from one organism and put it into another,” Wyatt said. “It’s kind of a precision tool, but it also allows you to bridge the species gap and even put a bacteria into a plant.”

Squash is only one crop in the works at Cornell. Before too long, student cooks at Paul Smith’s might also be slicing, roasting and steaming new species of melons, cucumbers, peppers or snap peas.

Wyatt and her colleagues test for disease and pest resistance by simply walking through the fields and taking note of which plants are free of those things. She said she hopes that level of attention stays with the produce and ends up in kitchens everywhere.

“Plant breeding has a lot of opportunities for creativity, and so does cooking, so we can both be creative toward the same goals,” Wyatt said. “If we can educate the students about all the opportunities there are within vegetables, fruits and grains, it can really help with regional food systems to make connections with local growers, who could supply these unique varieties.”

Paul Smith’s students won’t just turn the squash into soups and ravioli, though. Their part of the collaboration is to advise the breeders on what chefs are looking for in the vine-grown fruits.

“We can say, ‘You know what? We found that the seeds on the inside are very difficult to get out,” said Kevin McCarthy, assistant professor in the culinary arts and baking program. “They’re very mushy, like the inside of a pumpkin, and there are certain squashes, like a pepita pumpkin, that they specifically grow for the seeds because the seeds will grow more in a sack. So they can produce a squash that has a seed pouch and all of the slimy seeds on the inside.”

Linnea Shumway and Mark Wrigley are Paul Smith’s students who have test-driven the new honeynut squash.

“It has a different flavor to it, so it gives you that texture,” Wrigley said. “I think it’s also easier to work with than other squashes. It takes longer to roast, so its structure doesn’t break down as much as a butternut’s would.”

Wrigley would know. He and Shumway were part of a student team that prepared an entire menu of honeynut-intensive dishes for a Celebration of the Honeynut Squash dinner held at the college Nov. 15. The menu began with an appetizer comparison of butternut and honeynut squash soups, and closed with an Asgaard Dairy Bark Eater Bouche, Honeynut Chip and Vanilla Puree.

The aspiring chefs agreed that working with an entirely new medium gave them a chance to break free from the vines of the common squash and participate in the future of the food industry.

“Since honeynuts are sweeter, when you blend it into a puree it’s a lot silkier on your tongue,” Shumway said. “All the water in a butternut makes it so you can’t get it as smooth. It’s kind of like we’re sculpting what’s to come.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or