Yum! Broccoli.

I’m all out of deep thoughts for the moment, so why not just have a look at this article about an attempt to engineer a better broccoli:

There it sits, a deep-green beauty at the farmers’ market: that sweet, crisp nutritional dynamo we know as fresh local broccoli.

And then there’s this: a bitter, rubbery mass that’s starting to turn yellow around the tips, all bumped and bruised from its long trip from the field to the supermarket.

Thomas Bjorkman, a plant scientist at Cornell University, examined the store-bought specimen like a diagnostician, unflinchingly but with a certain compassion.

“It’s soft, almost limp,” he said, prodding one of the heads. “That sharp smell is from the sulfur compounds. Scale of 10, with 10 being broccoli picked the same day you eat it? I’d give this a 2, maybe a 3.”

For all the wonders of fresh broccoli, in most parts of the country it is available from local growers only during the cooler weeks at either end of the growing season, nowhere near long enough to become a fixture in grocery stores or kitchens.

Broccoli hates too much heat, which is why 90 percent of it sold in the United States comes from temperate California, which is often bathed by fog. The heads are fine if you live there, but for the rest of us they require a long truck ride (four or five days to the East Coast) and then some waiting time in a warehouse, tarnishing the appeal of a vegetable that health experts can’t praise enough.

I love broccoli! It’s great raw with a little homemade vinaigrette, or cooked in a stir fry. Heck, you can just give it a quick sweat, put it over brown rice, and make a sauce out of soy sauce, red wine vinegar, dijon mustard, olive oil, red pepper flake and curry powder. Dinner!

And all this time I had no idea that I was eating such an inferior version of it. The stuff I find in my local supermarket is pretty darn tasty. I can only imagine how good the real thing is.

The article is fairly long, and also discusses issues with Bjorkman’s collaboration with Monsanto. The part that jumped out at me, though, was this:

In recent months, the Cornell lab has turned out a full-flavored habanero pepper without the burning heat, snap peas without the pesky strings, and luscious apples that won’t brown when sliced — a huge boon to school cafeteria matrons plagued by piles of fruit that students won’t eat unless it is cut up.

Sheer madness. The burning heat is the whole point of a habanero pepper.

Comments

  1. #1 eric
    July 10, 2013

    I love broccoli!

    You can have my share.
    I seem to recall there’s been similar articles about tomatoes and pumpkins (and probably other foodstuffs too). All pointing to the fact that the ag. industry selects variants for their saleability – traits like keeping a certain color for a long time, or being tough enough not to be bruised in transit – and that this has had a negative impact on flavor.

    It makes sense, but I’m also a bit wary that some of it may just be typical human rose-tinted view of the past. Maybe broccoli tastes better fresh off the farm or maybe 1973 variants tasted better than 2013 variants. But probably our memory of eating tastier broccoli 40 years ago is biased too.

  2. #2 Reginald Selkirk
    July 10, 2013

    Sheer madness. The burning heat is the whole point of a habanero pepper.

    Yes. And there are plenty of other peppers with a lower Scoville rating. Ancho for example, has plenty of flavour but not much eat.

  3. #3 SLC
    July 10, 2013

    Just the sight of broccoli makes me want to puke.

  4. #4 Lenoxus
    July 10, 2013

    Well, count me among the broccoli-lovers, even frozen-and-cooked. Although I happen to like brussels sprouts more.

    eric:

    Maybe broccoli tastes better fresh off the farm or maybe 1973 variants tasted better than 2013 variants. But probably our memory of eating tastier broccoli 40 years ago is biased too.

    The freshness factor seems pretty plausible, since almost every food is affected by time. (Heh. When typing “blockquote” to do the quote, I started to type “broccoliquote”.)

    Anyway, this old Onion article about genetically-modified broccoli is obviously apropos. (It may be intended to have a quasi-anti-GMO slant, which I don’t share, but it’s amusing nonetheless.)

  5. #5 Lenoxus
    July 10, 2013

    argh, broccoliquote fail!

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 10, 2013

    Lenoxus –

    I fixed your formatting for you.

    Broccoli seems to be one of those foods that no one is neutral about. You either love it or you hate it. Green bell peppers and cilantro are two other foods that I really like but lots of people hate. On the other hand, for me, cheese is like kryptonite. It even makes me a little queasy to watch other people eating it.

  7. #7 CarlosT
    July 10, 2013

    The Brassica genus is delicious. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, mustard, cabbage, Brussels sprouts…

    I wonder what’s for dinner tonight?

  8. #8 Graham
    July 11, 2013

    … turnips, rapeseed,…

    Not enough people know about the Triangle of U, which is very cool, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_of_U.

  9. #9 Thomas Björkman
    Geneva NY
    July 11, 2013

    Thanks for picking up on this story. I can fill in a couple of things that might be of interest to scientists on this blog, but that don’t fit in a Dining section profile.

    First, you probably have had very good broccoli. The article describes on that the reporter had bought at a small shop in Brooklyn. Also on the table at the same time was an excellent California broccoli that I had bought at my local produce-centric supermarket. Local broccoli has the opportunity to improve the quality by a notch, but the California growers and shippers set the quality bar very high. The more mundane difference is that shipping to the East now costs more than the product. We can save a lot of fuel by producing regionally.

    Second, the Haba-nada isn’t my work, but part of the PhD project of a present colleague. The challenge was to keep all the full flavor and interesting aromatics in Habaneros while reducing the heat. There are a substantial number of people who find them too hot, but would like those aromatics. The compounds are very closely related, so it takes a lot of tweaking in the pathway. Shutting down the whole pathway makes it dull and pointless. The trick was to identify the exact branch points in the pathway, and to find mutant genes for those enzymes. Then there is the matter of screening the progeny for heat. How would you like to taste the peppers on 1000 segregating progeny? (see http://www.growingmagazine.com/article-9059.asp)

    As to the comments here, it is OK not to like broccoli. Our motivation is that very many people do, it is the most consumed of your cooked green vegetables. More than beans, spinach, cabbage and the like. We are trying to meet consumer demand for more vegetables, in particular more local vegetables. But if you are not one of those people, that’s OK.

    The GMO question comes up a lot. For this project, it is simply not a useful approach. Broader adaptation to eastern growing conditions is tremendously complex. It involves the mysterious process of how accumulated low-temperature exposure is sensed, measured and interpreted by the plant. Then it involves an interconnected regulatory network of many transcription factors. Even if we understood the molecular mechanisms (and that is far off), I’d defy anyone to correctly predict the effect of transgenic modification of any of the genes involved.

    Finally, since this is a profile piece, I was credited for doing a whole bunch of things that are really my collaborator’s work. That’s the nature of such publicity. Folks from many universities and companies are working together on the project, and they are listed at easternbroccoli.org.

  10. #10 Thanny
    July 11, 2013

    Ancho for example, has plenty of flavour but not much eat.

    Anchos are smoked poblano peppers. Poblanos are definitely mild, but taste nothing like habanero peppers.

  11. #11 eric
    July 11, 2013

    As to the comments here, it is OK not to like broccoli. Our motivation is that very many people do, it is the most consumed of your cooked green vegetables. More than beans, spinach, cabbage and the like. We are trying to meet consumer demand for more vegetables, in particular more local vegetables.

    Oh, don’t get me wrong, I fully support the work. I think it sounds really interesting when ag scientists try to recapture some lost flavor or improve the flavor of current plan varieties. I’m sure you’ll learn some agricultural lessons from the broccoli studies that will help improve the flavor of the the plants that don’t taste like ground-up feet. :)

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 12, 2013

    Hi Thomas. Thanks for stopping by and providing the extra details and context.

  13. #13 ryan
    http://buz2buz.com/bookmarks/view/59267/more
    July 14, 2013

    Hi, I

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