seed series: irresistibly tasty varieties to try, with lane selman of culinary breeding network
IT’S SEED-SHOPPING TIME, time to kick off my annual Seed Series on the show and website, and introduce you—and myself—to plants both traditional and cutting-edge worth searching out to try in this year’s garden. Lane Selman, who showed off some of each of those in our recent interview, is founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, a collaborative community of plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, produce buyers and chefs aiming together to improve quality in vegetables and grains by creating, identifying and promoting more desirable cultivars.
Lane is also an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University who confesses to an obsession with a diversity of radicchio, among other weaknesses, and we talked about growing salads of gorgeous radicchio (above, in a photo from Uprising Seeds), and extra-flavorful varieties of fennel and arugula, about some exceptionally beautiful and tasty beets and more—including winter squash that last a very long time in storage and can be enjoyed cooked or raw, that you may not have grown but should.
Plus: At the end of the transcript is a list of more, more more varieties and sources Lane is in love with. Enjoy (and explore)!
Read along as you listen to the January 13, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
exceptional vegetable varieties, with lane selman
Margaret Roach: Hi, Lane. I guess there are crazier things one could be obsessed with than radicchio, right? [Laughter.]
Lane Selman: Yes, of course.
Margaret: Of course. Of course. So Culinary Breeding Network. Tell us about it, sort of its genesis. I think in its creation story, there were peppers involved.
Lane: Right. Yes.
Margaret: Yes. Tell us about It.
Lane: Sure. Yes. So I work for Oregon State University here in Oregon, and I work on a project called NOVIC, which is the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. And that is a project that’s led by Oregon State University, but also includes the Organic Seed Alliance, that’s up in Washington but works nationally, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Cornell University.
So, at each of those institutions, there are breeders that breed, at least part-time, specifically for organic farmers, which have very different needs—a lot of the same needs of a lot of gardeners, I believe. And so what we’ve done in this project is we’ve taken a lot of the breeding lines that all of these different plant breeders are working on—they’re specific for organic systems—and trial them on a lot of different farms all over the country to see how they perform on organic farms. And we compare them to varieties that we know are going to perform really well on farms. We also test out new varieties that come out.
You open up your seed catalog, like right now at this time of year, we open the seed catalogs and as farmers it’s like, “Oh wow, well, there’s all these new varieties. Are they going to do well for me or not?” Everyone’s thinking that, right? So we trial all of those.
And this one year we were trialing these sweet peppers, so kind of like a roasting pepper, the ones that they call ‘Corno di Toro’ that are pointed, that are really nice and have thick walls for roasting. And we are trying to find a variety that would perform really well here in Oregon, where we have a short season. Also, we have evenings that get really cool where a lot of times on the East Coast like they stay a little bit warmer, so we never really know if varieties are going to perform really well. So we’re looking for that.
And so we knew exactly what the farmers wanted out of a variety, and we were finding that out. We were doing all this work on the farms. But then I had the question like, “Well what about what they taste like?” because-
Margaret: [Laughter.] Right.
Lane: …. if they grill great, but they don’t taste great, then that really isn’t that helpful.
Margaret: Then we could’ve just gone to the supermarket and gotten a really nasty…
Lane: Exactly. Exactly. So, what do they really taste like? And sometimes as researchers we get stuck in this thing where we’re like, “O.K., well, let’s just bite into it and give it a 1 to 9 rating.” But I didn’t really want to do that because mostly I didn’t trust myself. And I was like, “I’m one person, and what do I know about how great a pepper’s going to taste or not?”
And also, to be honest, it’s hard for me to be unbiased, because I’m out there in the field, I’m looking at all of these and I really want to choose varieties that perform really well for farmers. So I wanted to remove myself from the equation.
And so, I asked a lot of chefs that I knew—I worked at a farmers’ market in Portland, Oregon at that time also—and I asked a bunch of chefs to get together and taste them with me. And they tasted them and they basically started identifying the different things that they liked about those peppers that went beyond just the flavor, but actually the shape and the size.
Margaret: Right, because they were-
Lane: Like rounded shoulders rather than-
Margaret: … yes, practicalities of structure that make something, in the same way that a piece of meat or a cut of fish or whatever isn’t appropriate for a particular recipe or a method of cooking. The same with vegetables, right? It’s like-
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Lane: And then thinking about waste, too, like-
Lane: … having efficiency in the kitchen and all these things that are very important. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, are the plant breeders that are actually creating these new varieties of tomatoes or peppers or of everything—do they know what this wealth of information that the chefs and other value-added, to someone’s making a hot sauce or something, or just the end user—do they spend enough time interacting with them to understand what the needs are in these varieties?”
Margaret: Right. So you it wanted to plug these participants who were working around these same vegetables but not together yet, you plugged them together and made Culinary Breeding Network?
Lane: Exactly, yes. We started organizing these events to bring individuals, these individuals, all these different stakeholders in our food system together, which has extended into the public, because we all are stakeholders in the food system.
Margaret: Yes. So, you have this interesting perspective, because you’re working with all these breeders, many of whom we gardener types, don’t necessarily hear about—we may see one of their varieties, we may not even know who bred it or developed it. But you’re interacting with all of these people, as you say, all these stakeholders, and you have the chefs and produce managers and all these other produce buyers and farmers and seed growers and breeders and so forth. So, you get to see and hear about a lot of things that are kind of coming down the pike or that are getting, they’re starting to trend even before we gardeners see them in a catalog maybe.
So like from your Instagram, which is @culinarybreedingnetwork, I know some of the crops you especially love, and I mentioned the radicchio in the intro. So tell us about that one for instance. And is that something that you all have ever talked about among this group, these stakeholders?
Lane: Yes. Well, I could go on forever. So you’re going to have to cut me off, shut me up.
Margaret: I’ll just say shush now, Lane. [Laughter.]
Lane: I think, so, I am a Sicilian and I grew up with a lot of food, and a lot of Italian food. So this is something that has just been something that we consumed, but it is not a crop or a vegetable that is consumed that much in the United States. But working with chefs, there is an appreciation for different flavors other than sweet. I mean, this is something that we see all the time in plant breeding, is the trend keeps going toward breeding sweeter and sweeter things. But there are earthiness and earthiness and there’s bitterness, and all these things that actually should be appreciated, I feel like, in vegetables.
So there’s that kind of culture, food culture kind of side that I really like about radicchio. But additionally, it is something that is very important and new to Pacific Northwest, as well as where you are in the Northeast, to be consuming for individuals, you know, the public to be consuming, because that’s what we grow in these areas in the winter. We cannot grow lettuce. So, what I see a lot of times like in the farmers’ market setting is like all of these people come out and support farmers in the height of the season when, of course, everything is so wonderful and tasty, why would you go to the grocery store? And farmers’ markets in a lot of areas are very plentiful. So it’s convenient. You can go there.
But as soon as it starts here, you know, it starts raining and it’s cold and it’s not so nice to come to the farmers’ market, people go back to the grocery store and they’re buying lettuce and cucumbers from places that are very far away. So, I really want people to eat things that are grown here all year-round. So we have a campaign called Eat Winter Vegetables. There’s a website eatwintervegetables.com, and radicchio is part of that.
Margaret: So with the radicchio then, one of the flavors that you get from it is the bitter, not the sweet. You were just talking about sweet in vegetables being something that a lot of people breed for and so forth. And it’s more cold-tolerant, so it can grow at a time when say lettuce can’t, even in our Northern areas. And I would say from the pictures on your Instagram, even though it’s the leaves of the radicchio, they look like flowers, they’re so beautiful and they’re all these sort of lavender and mauve shades and mottled and just beautiful, beautiful. Do you grow it in your home garden?
Lane: Yes, I do, actually. Yes. It’s very rewarding. It’s exciting. It’s kind of like, I think I’ve always loved growing garlic, because you plant it and then it’s like you don’t see it and then all of a sudden you have this wonderful thing that you pull out of the ground. Well, radicchio you grow and you can harvest the leaves and eat the leaves. But it heads up, and it can get a lot of frost damage on the outside and get really slimy and you think, “Oh God, I’ve lost it. It’s done.” And then you get out there and you start pulling off these slimy leaves, and you get down to just this hidden jewel of a little head that is beautiful and perfect.
Margaret: Yes. Do you have any favorite varieties that you want to tell us about real quick?
Lane: Oh, sure. [Laughter.] Well, so one thing I did want to mention is, one of the reasons also that it hasn’t been grown a lot is that there hasn’t been a lot of resources for seed. So, Uprising Seeds does have it, they have several … they love radicchio and they do have several. And this year I think is the first time that they have released the ‘Isontina,’ and that is one that is a pink. And so people are really drawn to the pink-
Margaret: It’s beautiful, yes. [‘Isontina’ photo above from Uprising catalog.]
Lane: ... that are called ‘Rosa di Veneto,’ and there’s several varieties of those, and that’s a really beautiful one.
Margaret: O.K. And so you said Italy, and it seems like, again, I infer from Instagram and from your website, that things Italian, including this crazy arugula that isn’t even exactly an arugula that I’ve seen you extol the virtues of. Do you know which one I’m talking about?
Lane: Is this the ‘Wasabi’ arugula?
Margaret: Yes. I mean, I think arugula as being like an Italian thing, the peppery taste and whatever. But this was a little bit different.
Lane: This is a little bit different. It could be used in a lot of different ways, I think. It is an arugula that tastes just like wasabi. So, I would imagine it in Japanese, Asian type food, but it is pretty spectacular how much it tastes like wasabi. It can be really fun to play some tricks on people.
Margaret: And I see that like Renee’s and Johnny’s and Territorial—a lot of people have it. But I also see that they put it in a different genus as opposed to in Eruca, where I would put arugula. It’s Diplotaxis. So, I don’t even know … I know they’re both brassicas, but I don’t know how close their relationship is. So I’m going to do a little more taxonomic homework on that. Because that was real interesting, ‘Wasabi’ arugula. Yes. Some other things that you’re excited about right now?
Lane: Well, I’m very excited all the time about things that are Italian, right? So I’m very excited about fennel and borage. I think we talked once before about borage being something that people plant a lot of times for pollinators. I mean, it can get pretty weedy in your garden, but it’s got beautiful flowers, it attracts a lot of pollinators and you can actually eat the leaves of it. They’re very nice cooked down because it doesn’t have a very nice mouthfeel with the pricklies on it unless you cook it.
Margaret: Yes. [Laughter.]
Lane: Yes. There’s a lot of new things that are out from seed companies for sure. It’s kind of interesting, I’ve noticed this trend in a lot more varieties that are coming from other countries. So, I feel like a lot of us are going back, like we’ve been talking about like my roots are from Sicily, so I’m always thinking about like that type of cuisine and wanting to feel more connected to it. So Uprising, I told you they have a lot of … they have things from all over the world, but they have quite a few new peppers.
The ‘Sugar Rush Peach’ pepper [above] is out, they have that one and that’s a really fantastic pepper. It’s got a great flavor. It’s a really unusual color, a peach color, great flavor like I said. And it does really well in shorter seasons. So like for us out here in the Pacific Northwest, I think as well as in the Northeast where you are, would do really well. They also have a beet that they’re very excited about I know that it’s called … I’m going to botch a lot of these names because they’re all in different languages-
Margaret: I know, right? It’s confusing.
Lane: This is ‘Crapaudine’ beet [above] and that is originally some seed that Brian [Campbell of Uprising Seeds] was looking for, and I helped him get from an Italian friend of ours from a French company. So that’s kind of a cylindrical beat that he is very excited about, and he loves the flavor of.
Margaret: Want to spell it for me just if you can?
Lane: Yes. C-R-A-P-A-U-D-I-N-E.
Margaret: O.K., good. You mentioned fennel—finocchio, yes?
Margaret: And it seems like there’s different strengths. [Laughter.] Do you know what I mean? Is that true? Do I infer from what I’m reading these catalog descriptions that some are more licorice-y than others, or…?
Lane: Exactly. You know, in that NOVIC project, we did do a trialing of varieties of fennel one year and really noticed that. And then, I also went back to Italy and visited some plant breeders, and they talked about that quite a bit, too. Because in Italy they really appreciate that very anise-y, licorice flavor. So theirs are smaller, usually flatter, and have more intense flavor like that. Whereas a lot of those that they grow the seed for, for export that’s going to be grown in the U.S. or in like in England, they’re larger, rounder and more watery, so a lot less flavor like that.
Margaret: O.K. You mentioned beets and I think that I’ve seen this beet from Row 7, this newish seed company. Have you seen this beet of theirs that’s getting some press?
Lane: Yes, they have ‘Badger Flame,’ and that’s a delicious beet [photo below from Row 7 catalog]. It’s great cooked, it’s great raw, and that is from Irwin Goldman, who is a beet breeder at the University of Wisconsin, and he’s a fantastic breeder. He really appreciates, again, like that earthiness, right? So it’s like with some really sweet beets, but then also to be able to have this earthiness. But I believe that’s a pretty sweet and quite beautiful beet that tastes fantastic raw, which is often not the case.
Margaret: Right Badger and then Flame, the flame sort of speaks to the beauty of it. The colors in it, yes?
Lane: Yes, exactly. It’s kind of like a ‘Chioggia,’ like that candy-cane stripe, but it’s very prominent like yellow and orange stripes. Super-beautiful.
Margaret: Anything good going on in chard? I love chard.
Lane: Ooh, that’s a good … you know, I really enjoy the Bietola which is … that is like the Italian chard and it’s a pretty mild chard. It doesn’t have the midrib that’s colored. It’s just green and white and it’s less savoy. I’m trying to think of a good seed source for that, maybe you know, I’ve actually bought this from Seeds from Italy a lot times in the big packages and you have enough for years. [Laughter.] I’ve grown from them before. I really enjoyed that.
Margaret: It’s funny that you say that because I love like ‘Silverado’ and ‘Fordhook Giant’ and ‘Glatter Silber,’ the ones that have the white midrib and the green leaf. I’ve always preferred those to the … but the colorful ones are gorgeous, obviously. And the reason I thought of chard it’s because it’s kind of a cousin to beet and so we were just talking about beets so it came into my head, but-
Lane: Yes. It’s really nice, it’s mild and it’s really nice in like a gratin or something like that. But yes, it can get away from … it has less of a beet flavor because of not having those pigments, I think.
Margaret: Yes. So, recently I saw that you, along with some collaborators—now, not under the auspices of Culinary Breeding Network specifically, but other [Oregon State] collaborators—you participated in kind of this paper about squash, winter squash, and everybody grows ‘Butternut’ and ‘Delicata’ and ‘Acorn,’ but this was about kabochas and buttercups. It was a little different. Tell us about that, because those are two, I feel like, people who haven’t grown them and haven’t used them in the kitchen, they’re just so different and special. [Above, a green kabocha type; below, a buttercup squash with its characteristic “button.”]
Lane: Yes. Thanks for bringing that up. Yes. You know, we got involved in that project at OSU. Alex Stone led that project, and a lot of the growers out here have a lot of problems with squash in storage. So, even though they might have really fantastic-tasting Butternuts and Delicatas are more popular here than acorn, they don’t last very long in storage. I mean, the ‘Delicata’ is a pepo, so it doesn’t normally last very long, anyway. But they rot and then we really want people to be eating squash during the time of year that they should: winter squash. So like not having people in at like Thanksgiving, a lot of times people are like, “Oh, I’ve burned out on squash.” And it’s like, well, this is really just the beginning.
And so looking at these other squash that grow well for farmers and gardeners and that store really well without having to be in this kind of optimal conditions, where you have like a warehouse that’s at the specific humidity, temperature and everything.
Margaret: I have no warehouse, Lane, I have no warehouse. [Laughter.]
Lane: I know, right? So we call it “shackability,” instead of storability. It’s like, can it shack? You know?
Margaret: Can you shack up with a squash? [Laughter.]
Lane: And can it handle … yes, like where we’re actually going to be putting it. Which for storage was just probably going to be a shack.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes.
Lane: So, they taste really different, too. And I really think that they should be considered quite different from one another. And we have … so that project is called, these are very easy websites to remember because we had Eat Winter Vegetables, but we also have Eat Winter Squash. So if you go online there you can find out all different types of winter squash, including the kabocha and the buttercup types that store longer, which maybe when you’re done with eating your ‘Delicata,’ because it’s a early season squash, moving onto the next one. And then some of them will last a year.
But there’s recipes online, it’s kind of puts them in categories of what’s the most appropriate way to use it. Like baking it into a dessert or using it raw. This is something we’ve really been working with chefs and like the public to get people to eat more winter squash, is a lot of them do really nicely if they’re raw.
Winter squash can take a long time to cook and people are busy and they don’t want to deal with it. So, just busting one open and using like a mandoline or just a vegetable peeler and putting it raw into a salad. You have a great salad that’s with ‘Black Futsu’ squash [below] that we see a lot more here just in Whole Foods and grocery stores, just kind of a newer squash for the public with a ‘Treviso,’ which is a type of radicchio, salad—really fantastic. So that one is online, but a lot of information about different types of winter squash.
Margaret: Good. So you have these events and you refer to this in the beginning you have these Variety Showcases, and everybody kind of gets together and tastes and talks and swaps information and networks and whatever. And I think there’s one coming up February 16th, for instance. Is that where you are, in Portland?
Lane: Exactly. It’s in Portland, Oregon. It’s going to be, I mean, probably about 40 tables of plant breeders and seed growers that show off a lot of their breeding work—sometimes things that are not yet released so that you get to look at them and give your opinion to the plant breeder. The plant breeders matched up with a chef, who then make something always really fantastic and usually pretty creative and interesting. They really like to blow it out of the water with these breeders, because they’re kind of experimental, you know, things that we don’t know about yet. Like really beautiful carrots. And I mean there’s beets and radicchio and it’s so many different things. We have grains, fruits and vegetables there, about 40 different tables. Yes, you can get tickets online. It’s really fun.
Margaret: And you sometimes have these in other places, too, don’t you, these events?
Lane: We’ve done them—I’ve done them twice in Oahu, and once in New York City.
Margaret: Yes, I remember. Yes, yes, yes.
Lane: Yes. And so, usually in the midst of the season, so they’re usually in September, when we’ve got a lot of different … fresh produce is plentiful. So this has been a challenge, but we are trying to get people very excited about Brussels sprouts and cauliflower and radicchio and celeriac, and I think it’s working. We had a sagra, which is like a celebration event of winter vegetables, along with a Fill Your Pantry farmers’ market. And we had 30 farmers made $87,000 [at that one sale. [Read about the sagra, and get all the winter-vegetable recipes that were served.]
Margaret: Cool. Oh my goodness. Good for you.
Lane: It’s fantastic. Right? And they’re selling things that they’re like … people haven’t really been excited about celeriac and rutabagas, but now people are. So hopefully it’s making an impact.
Margaret: I think that my neighbors, I have a seed company in my town in my little rural New York State-Hudson Valley town, Turtle Tree Seed, a biodynamic seed company. And I think Lia Babitch, who’s in charge of it, I think she said that they’re bringing a bean to the-
Lane: They are, they’re bringing-
Margaret: ‘Aunt Ada’s Italian.’
Lane: … they’re bringing ‘Aunt Ada’s’ pole bean [above].
Margaret: So, ‘Aunt Ada’s,’ I had a new book come out last year and this Christmas with my local bookstore, lots of my readers ordered copies to give as gifts, signed copies. And I gave a packet and my recipe for vegetable soup. ‘Aunt Ada’s’ must be in every vegetable soup—it changes your vegetable soup completely. So, about 75 or 80 people ordered a book, a signed book, and they each got a packet of ‘Aunt Ada.’ So I’ll be there in spirit. [Laughter.]
Margaret: ‘Aunt Ada’ is my girl.
Lane: I hope to see you there in person some time.
Margaret: So, thank you so, so much for taking the time, Lane, and I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.
more favorites from lane selman at culinary breeding network
- Forcing chicories like ‘Isontina’ (‘Gorizia’) and ‘Incantatore’ (‘Tardivo’).
- Lots of new peppers: ‘Biquinho’, ‘Criolla Sella,’ ‘Sugar Rush Peach,’ ‘Criolla di Cochina.’
- ‘Crapaudine ‘beet (a CBN Seed Story), originally from a French company that we acquired via Italy
- Quinoa in new sizes and seed colors
- Lettuces (the best selection anywhere)!
- ‘Chinese Pink’ celery
- New flowers
- ‘Rose de Roscoff’ onion from Brittany
- ‘Ise’ pepper from Japan (like a sweeter bigger shishito)
- ‘Prik Chi Faa’ hot pepper from Thailand (less heat and rich flavor for sauces)
- Lots of flowers
- ‘Simone’ broadleaf kale – a CBN breeding project
- Many new peppers, including ‘Stravos’ pepperoncini, ‘Little Elf’ from Romania, and ‘Kalocsai Paprika’ from Hungary
- More flowers
- Crystalline ice plant is absolutely stunning and delicious. Great as a vegetable or ornamental.
- ‘Tango’ cosmos is so easy to start from seed, and brings pollinators to the the garden. Prolific until frost.
- ‘Moon’ carrot is one of the most gorgeous garden showstoppers. Photos can’t do it justice.
- Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) (a dye plant) is magic.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 13, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).