Seed to Kitchen

Plant breeders partner with chefs for tastier produce

Have you noticed that more and more restaurants are featuring great-tasting, locally sourced foods on their menus? Now, through a UW–Madison horticulture initiative called “Seed to Kitchen,” chefs on the culinary cutting edge are working with plant breeders to grow produce with specific flavor characteristics their customers will love. –

Breeding for Flavor

On a sticky weekday morning in August, a new restaurant called Estrellón (“big star” in Spanish) is humming with advanced prep and wine deliveries. All wood and tile and Mediterranean white behind a glass exterior, the Spanish-style eatery is the fourth venture of Madison culinary star Tory Miller. Opening is just three days away, and everything is crisp and shiny and poised.

Chef Miller takes a seat with colleagues Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective 2016-09-13_8-47-52and Dan Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. The chefs are here to lend their highend taste buds to science, and they start to banter about tomato flavor. What are the key elements? How important are they relative to each other?

Despite their intense culinary dedication, these men rarely just sit down and eat tomatoes with a critical frame of mind. “I learned a lot about taste through this project,” says Hunter. “I really started thinking about how I defined flavor in my own head and how I experience it.”

This particular tasting was held last summer. And there have been many others like it over the past few years with Miller, Hunter, Bonanno and Eric Benedict BS’04, of Café Hollander.

The sessions are organized by Julie Dawson, a CALS/UW–Extension professor of horticulture who heads the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (formerly called the Chef–Farmer–Plant Breeder Collaborative). Her plant breeding team from CALS will note the flavors and characteristics most valuable to the chefs. Triangulating this with feedback from select farmers, plant breeders will get one step closer to the perfect tomato. But not just any tomato: One bred for Upper Midwest organic growing conditions, with flavor vetted by some of our most discerning palates.

“We wanted to finally find a good red, round slicer, and tomatoes that look and taste like heirlooms but aren’t as finicky to grow,” says Dawson at the August tasting, referring to the tomato of her dreams. “We’re still not at the point where we have, for this environment, really exceptional flavor and optimal production characteristics.”

Nationwide, the tomato has played a symbolic role in a widespread reevaluation of our food system. The pale, hard supermarket tomatoes of January have been exhibit A in discussions about low-wage labor and food miles. Seasonally grown heirloom tomatoes have helped us understand how good food can be with a little attention to detail.

But that’s just the tip of the market basket, because Dawson’s project seeks to strengthen a middle ground—an Upper Midwest ground, actually—in the food system. With chefs, farmers and breeders working together, your organic vegetables should get tastier, hardier, more abundant and more local where these collaborations exist.

Please continue reading this story on the Grow magazine website.

Note: The Seed to Kitchen Collaborative is one of the projects that will be featured at the upcoming Horticulture Showcase on Thursday, Sept. 15, and there are still tickets available to a dinner event featuring the work of the Collaborative that will take place immediately after the showcase.

 

Farm to Flavor dinner will feature plant breeding efforts

Farm to Flavor is a signature dinner experience and celebration of Wisconsin food that will be held on Thursday, September 15, 2016 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in the Mendota Room inside Dejope Hall. It brings together the plant breeders, farmers, and chefs responsible for creating a new local cuisine. These co-creators encompass the motto that food is made at the intersection of seed, farm, and kitchen.

Taste the results of collaborative plant breeding in small plates from Madison’s highly acclaimed chefs including, Jonny Hunter of Underground Food Collective, Tory Miller of I’Etoile, Dan Bonnano of Pig in a Fur Coat and Eric Benedict of Café Hollander. Guest speaker Ken Greene of the Hudson Valley Seed Library will kick off a dinner discussion about the intersection of crop varieties, culture and art. Questions about plant breeding, farming and food systems are welcomed throughout the dinner.

Prior to the dinner, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., a free plant-breeding showcase held at Allen Centennial Garden will give attendees the opportunity to meet leading plant breeders responsible for developing fruits and vegetables adapted for Wisconsin’s organic farms. While sampling the results, attendees will learn how collaborative plant breeding can increase productivity and the profitability of regional organic farms.

The cost to attend the dinner is $35 in advance and $40 the day of the event. Register athttp://bit.ly/2bh7dtv.

For more information, contact Julie Dawson at dawson@hort.wisc.edu or (608) 609-6165.

Julie Dawson and Local Chefs Collaborate on Vegetables

The spread of dishes that filled tables in a church basement near the UW-Madison campus one night this fall would have been the envy of any Madison foodie.

squash.dawson.12.6.15

A volunteer tastes butternut squash as part of a UW-Madison program that aims to create new and better-tasting types of fruits and vegetables. John Hart – State Journal picture credit

There were beets with farro koji, yogurt and pickled carrots, the creation of A Pig In a Fur Coat chef Dan Bonanno. The Underground Food Collective’s Jonny Hunter served a squash puree with corn, onions and peppers. Tory Miller, the star chef behind four Madison restaurants, prepared a paella with squash and kale.

As impressive as the lineup of chefs was, the stars of that October night were the ingredients they used.

The squash, corn, peppers, carrots, kale — just about all of the ingredients that went into the dishes — were some of the early results of a UW-Madison program that has brought professors, plant breeders, organic farmers and some of the city’s top chefs together with the goal of creating more flavorful fruits and vegetables for local agriculture.

Bonanno, Hunter, Miller and Eric Benedict of the recently opened Cafe Hollander have played an integral role in the program, which is now wrapping up its second growing season, volunteering their finely tuned tastes and knowledge of the restaurant business to give farmers and breeders detailed feedback on the new varieties of produce they create.

“This is one of the cooler things that’s happening in food in the world right now,” Hunter said. “We could really do something extraordinary here that makes vegetables more attractive to people to eat … and then we can also benefit as far as restaurants go, because our vegetables will be way better than anyone else’s.”

Farmers and chefs both want flavorful produce, says Julie Dawson, the UW-Madison professor who runs the initiative. Connecting them with UW professors’ deep knowledge of plant breeding and horticulture can help them get it, Dawson says.

“It’s something we can do as a public institution that really serves the farmers of the state that are trying to get more local produce into the market,” she said.

Flavor is top priority

When farmers and seed companies breed produce, they usually do so with production — not taste — in mind, said Miller.

They want vegetables that can withstand hundreds or thousands of miles of travel; that will ripen after they’re picked and that have a uniform appearance so they’ll look good on supermarket shelves.

But in the UW-Madison program, flavor is “a priority from the beginning of the breeding process,” Dawson said.

The breeders take some practical concerns into account — chefs want vegetables that can withstand some time in storage at their restaurants, and whatever produce they develop has to grow well in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, Dawson said.

But for the most part, the program focuses on finding and breeding varieties of fruits and vegetables with specific flavors and textures in mind.

So far that has included peppers that pack a moderate punch of heat, squash with higher sugar content that will caramelize when roasted, potatoes with a firmer texture that won’t disintegrate in soups, and corn with a more savory taste, rather than the ubiquitous sweet varieties.

The program works with 15 direct-market farmers — smaller operations that sell their produce directly to restaurants, community-supported agriculture programs and some markets. Those flavor traits can set the farmers’ fruits and vegetables apart, Dawson said, and also give chefs ingredients that can make for tastier dishes.

People think of heirloom varieties of tomatoes or other vegetables as being the most flavorful, she said, but those varieties are themselves the result of breeding and selection by farmers and gardeners.

“There’s no reason why we can’t continue that selection to breed varieties that are really excellent for local and organic agriculture, and also to have the highest quality and best flavor,” Dawson said.

Chefs are central

With such an emphasis on flavor, the researchers must extensively taste-test the fruits and vegetables grown through the program, often enlisting students, staff and faculty in various UW-Madison agricultural departments to help evaluate the many varieties of produce.

At one recent tasting, volunteers slowly moved down a line of roasting pans with butternut squash and plastic tubs of kale, sampling each variety and filling out forms evaluating their color, sweetness, acidity and texture.

Researchers also set up taste tests at farmers markets around Wisconsin to get a sense of what the general public thinks of the varieties, and local farmers taking part in the program give feedback on how well the vegetables grow and what sort of yield they see from the crops.

But some of the program’s best feedback comes from the chefs — Miller, Hunter, Bonanno and Benedict — who have spent hours tasting different kinds of tomatoes, peppers and corn to discern which have just the right flavor profile.

“When you try 27 different types of kale in the morning … you think about kale in a way you’ve never thought about it before,” Hunter said.

Kale grown in warm weather tends to be more bitter, so the program is working to develop a variety that will be sweeter in the summer.

“You’ve really got to concentrate on tasting something,” he said.

The chefs can pick up on the subtle differences in flavor and texture between varieties that might be lost on less discerning palates, said Philipp Simon, a UW-Madison professor and carrot breeder. That knowledge can give researchers very specific feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

“They’re very good at describing what they want,” Simon said. “Nothing against the average consumer, but they just say, ‘better’ and ‘good’ and those kinds of descriptions don’t help us very much.

“We get a lot more detailed kind of information from these professionals.”

Excited by the future

The chefs say they often find themselves thinking about the dishes they could build around the new varieties of fruits and vegetables while they’re taking part in the taste tests.

“How I’m going to use the food is going through my mind already,” Bonanno said.

That can benefit the farmers involved in the program, because if restaurants like Bonanno’s A Pig In a Fur Coat or Miller’s L’Etoile use the new varieties, that could help farmers to market them to consumers, Simon said.

It will still be several years before those new varieties are widely available. But the chefs and researchers involved in the program are excited for the future, when the new and unique vegetables they helped engineer could be found in community-supported agriculture boxes and restaurants around Madison.

“What we’re hoping for is a Wisconsin pepper, or those tomatoes that we developed or that we searched for,” Miller said. “That’s going to be the raddest thing five years from now.”

Dawson receives NCR-SARE Grant

MADISON, Wis. — Julie Dawson, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension has recently been recommended for funding for a $199,866 grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE) for the project “Tomato variety trials for flavor, quality and agronomic performance, to increase high-value direct marketing opportunities for farmers and on-farm trialing capacity”.

“This project will use participatory research methods to evaluate tomato varieties for agronomic traits, disease resistance, flavor and quality for local and regional markets in the NCR. Variety trials will be conducted on six participating farms and at two research stations. Tomato varieties will be evaluated for flavor and quality by a panel of chefs, farmers and selected consumers. An online database enabling farmers, chefs and researchers to easily exchange observations and data will be developed. This project will create a variety trialing and quality evaluation network that will also be used for other crops,” said Dawson.

Dawson receives NCR-SARE Grant

MADISON, Wis. — Julie Dawson, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension has recently been recommended for funding for a $199,866 grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE) for the project “Tomato variety trials for flavor, quality and agronomic performance, to increase high-value direct marketing opportunities for farmers and on-farm trialing capacity”.

“This project will use participatory research methods to evaluate tomato varieties for agronomic traits, disease resistance, flavor and quality for local and regional markets in the NCR. Variety trials will be conducted on six participating farms and at two research stations. Tomato varieties will be evaluated for flavor and quality by a panel of chefs, farmers and selected consumers. An online database enabling farmers, chefs and researchers to easily exchange observations and data will be developed. This project will create a variety trialing and quality evaluation network that will also be used for other crops,” said Dawson.

Dawson receives NCR-SARE Grant

MADISON, Wis. — Julie Dawson, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension has recently been recommended for funding for a $199,866 grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE) for the project “Tomato variety trials for flavor, quality and agronomic performance, to increase high-value direct marketing opportunities for farmers and on-farm trialing capacity”.

“This project will use participatory research methods to evaluate tomato varieties for agronomic traits, disease resistance, flavor and quality for local and regional markets in the NCR. Variety trials will be conducted on six participating farms and at two research stations. Tomato varieties will be evaluated for flavor and quality by a panel of chefs, farmers and selected consumers. An online database enabling farmers, chefs and researchers to easily exchange observations and data will be developed. This project will create a variety trialing and quality evaluation network that will also be used for other crops,” said Dawson.

Dawson receives NCR-SARE Grant

MADISON, Wis. — Julie Dawson, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension has recently been recommended for funding for a $199,866 grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE) for the project “Tomato variety trials for flavor, quality and agronomic performance, to increase high-value direct marketing opportunities for farmers and on-farm trialing capacity”.

“This project will use participatory research methods to evaluate tomato varieties for agronomic traits, disease resistance, flavor and quality for local and regional markets in the NCR. Variety trials will be conducted on six participating farms and at two research stations. Tomato varieties will be evaluated for flavor and quality by a panel of chefs, farmers and selected consumers. An online database enabling farmers, chefs and researchers to easily exchange observations and data will be developed. This project will create a variety trialing and quality evaluation network that will also be used for other crops,” said Dawson.