March 30, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 25°F


Professor engineers unusual veggies

While some cooks stick to the kitchen to toy with taste and texture, Michael Mazourek is playing in labs, preparing his own designer vegetables through genetic modification and plant crossbreeding.

Mazourek, assistant professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, is growing some unusual foods, altering vegetable taste and

Michael Mazourek, assistant professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, works Sept. 20 in his habanada pepper garden. TJ Gunther/The Ithacan

appearance to capitalize on an expanding market for specialized food.

Produce from Mazourek’s garden includes the habanada pepper, a habanero pepper with an altered spice gene, and the Farmer’s Daughter melon, which Mazourek said tastes like a pear and falls off the vine easily once ripe.

“It’s a pretty open, creative process for a lot of what we do, so it’s a lot like cooking without a recipe sometimes,” he said. “You’re not exactly sure what you’re going to end up with as you combine the different plants together.”

Molly Jahn, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, released plenty of her own designer creations while at Cornell, such as an award-winning salt and pepper cucumber. She said some development processes are simpler than others.

“It’s a mixture,” Jahn said. “It can be very creative, and we see surprises. Other times, we know exactly what we’re after ­— we’re not in the mood for surprises.”

Mazourek said he’s worked with a few chefs and retailers, including Dan Barber, celebrity chef and owner of the Blue Hill restaurants in New York City and Pocantico Hills, N.Y. He said chefs want to change traits about vegetables to better fit their recipes.

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Food scientists and plant breeders have been working in collaboration to develop designer vegetables for years. Sherry Tanumihardjo, associate professor of nutritional science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, worked over the last decade to produce multicolored carrots.

“We’re thinking about improving our health and making things interesting,” Tanumihardjo said. “We’ve been breeding for these different colors of food.”

Mazourek said he’s been living his childhood dream, toying with vegetables in hopes of increasing their accessibility.

“I’m getting the opportunity to do all the things with vegetables the 6-year-old me would have really liked,” he said. “As you get to see all the diversity, you just start to make all these connections of what is possible.”