Cuisine to Cultivar: Row 7 Seed Company Profile

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Founders Matthew Goldfarb, Michael Mazourek, and Dan Barber.
Courtesy of Row 7 Seed Company

Have you heard of the Honeynut squash? At the request of chef Dan Barber, Michael Mazourek, an associate professor in plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, began to breed this better butternut in 2009. Although not the initial goal, he packed the squash with nutrients, reduced its size, and made its skin thinner for easier preparation. First and foremost, Mazourek crafted this new breed to improve its flavor.

No more than half the size of its butternut predecessor, Honeynut is compact and undiluted by water, so it packs a much stronger punch when it comes to taste. This small squash has such a rich taste — vibrant, smooth, sweet, and nutty — that you might imagine it’s topped with brown butter or maple syrup. And while the squash is now beloved by chefs and growers, Barber and Mazourek originally feared that this wouldn’t be the case. Gardeners, cooks, and consumers alike (particularly in the United States) lean toward a more rigid view of what produce should look like. If something new varies too much from the expected standard, consumers grow wary. And if there’s no easily discernible market for a seed, no company will want to produce it.

So how do you reconcile the idea of breeding better crops with the possibility that sellers won’t be interested in your product? Simple: You start your own company. Thus, with the help of seedsman Matthew Goldfarb, Row 7 Seed Company was born.

Cultivating Community and Cuisine

The idea for a business rooted in the collaboration between plant breeders, gardeners, and chefs sprang directly from that initial conversation between Barber and Mazourek, as the challenge of the Honeynut squash was the first time Mazourek had been asked to breed a plant for flavor. “That conversation launched years of experiments in the kitchen and the field,” Barber says. “The idea of Row 7 was to formalize this work and expand it, bringing chefs and breeders together to develop new cultivars and — we hope — create a more delicious food system.” Today, Row 7 works alongside a community of more than 70 chefs and their partnering growers, and they want to continue to promote the conversations between cooks and breeders across the U.S.

This goal includes specifically breeding plants for flavor, of course, but also experimenting with how these new breeds grow and adapt in different regions, and how they fit into varying cuisines. “Great ingredients are not just about a plant’s genetics, but also its environment — how it interacts with the soil, the microclimate, even specific culinary techniques,” Barber says. And all the while, Row 7 and their growers ensure that their new breeds don’t lose their essential nutrients.

Courtesy of Row 7 Seed Company

This network of growers and chefs helps ensure top-notch seed as it first moves back and forth between new growing environments and conditions to flavor tests in personal kitchens. Barber explains that “through chef and grower feedback, we’re able to better predict where certain cultivars will thrive, and identify opportunities for future breeding work,” and further claims that “beyond our trial network, it’s been amazing to see the engagement from growers and cooks who reach out to share their experience with the crops.”

A New Frontier for Food Consumption

There’s a reason so many eager participants wait for the next vegetable breed to become available to them: What community gardener doesn’t want to grow plant cultivars that are bred and cultivated in the U.S., certified organic, and completely unpatented? Row 7 breeds their plants with their full genetic heritages intact rather than genetically engineering, and growers across the nation are encouraged to research, cross-pollinate, and save the seeds of their crops so that the experimentation never stops. In fact, this dedication to new ideas is what gave Row 7 its name. As it says on their website: “When scientists conceived the modern periodic table, they left blank spaces in the seventh row — placeholders for elements yet to be discovered. We hope to bring the same spirit of discovery to the food system.”

With Row 7 Seed Company already focused on sharing their results far and wide, it should come as no surprise that their next step advances the inaugural mission. As Barber puts it, “We founded Row 7 to bring these ingredients beyond the cathedral of white tablecloth restaurants.” He acknowledges that chefs play an important role in informing the food culture of a country, but they rarely affect how good food might be accessed outside of their restaurants. That’s where retailers, businesses, and even fast-casual dining chains come in. If big-box stores, such as Walmart, can begin to market these delicious and unique pieces of produce for mass consumption, everyone could experience a shift in the way we prepare and enjoy food.

For those involved with Row 7, this shift has already begun. When asked about his favorite vegetable from the company, Barber admitted many possibilities. “It’s impossible to choose!” he says. “But right now I’m looking at a tray of Badger Flame beets in the kitchen. It’s an incredible cultivar developed by Irwin Goldman, who discovered how to dial down beet’s naturally earthy flavor. The Badger Flame has this vegetal sweetness that, for me, redefines what a beet can be.” With the reinvention of traditional produce at the heart of Row 7 Seed Company’s mission, it’s clear that the better butternut squash was just the beginning.

Row 7 Plant Profiles

Beauregarde snow pea (Pisum sativum var. saccharatum ‘Beauregarde’). Named for Violet Beauregarde, these wavy, dark purple snow peas have a high anthocyanin content, the same antioxidant found in blueberries. These anthocyanins don’t just contribute to the peas’ striking appearance; they also improve the peas’ defenses in the field. And the natural advantage of Beauregarde is just as evident on the plate. Mazourek bred the peas to hold their color through cooking, so you can truly taste the purple.

Beauregarde snow pea
Courtesy of Row 7 Seed Company

Habanada pepper (Capsicum chinense ‘Habanada’). Before he was a breeder, Mazourek studied at Cornell University, where in 2001 he received a packet of seeds that were related to habanero peppers from researchers in New Mexico. The twist? These particular peppers were heatless, as a result of a natural mutation in the field. And they soon became the focus of Mazourek’s delicious doctoral research, wherein he discovered how to limit the habanero’s heat while preserving its floral and melon-like flavors. The resulting Habanada is aromatic with lingering sweetness, and it defies everything we’ve come to expect from a pepper. Eat them green and unripe for their powerful aroma, or savor their full potential as bright orange flavor bombs.

Habanada pepper
Courtesy of Row 7 Seed Company

Tetra squash (Cucurbita pepo ‘Tetra’). Mazourek decided to develop a multipurpose Delicata squash, with chefs co-selecting for flavor in both the immature and mature fruit. Picked green, the immature Tetra creates a delicious new category of summer squash, noteworthy for its delicate crunch. And the mature fruit stands out for its sweet and tender flesh. With zero waste as the ultimate goal, however, more experimentation soon followed. After Barber transformed a harvest of squash vines into “petiole penne,” Mazourek began selecting plants for sweeter, spineless, and less fibrous stems. The blossoms are also edible, encouraging a truly stem-to-fruit approach for chefs, growers, and consumers.

Tetra squash
Courtesy of Row 7 Seed Company

Upstate abundance potato (Solanum tuberosum ‘Upstate Abundance’). When second-generation potato breeder Walter De Jong first spotted trial NY150 among his field plots in 2004, he immediately took note. De Jong’s goal at the time was to breed a more resilient potato — specifically, one that was high-yielding, attractive, and resistant to the diseases plaguing potato growers in the Northeast. But De Jong was surprised to discover one experimental line that yielded an unexpected bonus: an abundance of golf-ball-sized potatoes with bright white flesh. He and field manager Matt Falise thought that NY150 was something worth pursuing, and discovered their intuition was correct when they first tasted it. Growers now praise the newly named Upstate Abundance for its naturally small size, and cooks covet its exceptionally creamy texture and nutty flavor.

 Upstate Abundance potato
Courtesy of Row 7 Seed Company

Curious about these newly cultivated crops in cuisine? Check out Row 7’s recipes featuring some of the above cultivars:

Being an editor at Heirloom Gardener gives Haley Casey a chance to gather endless new ideas for organic growing and delicious recipes, as well as read, write, and put her English degree to good use.

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