Forget blah butternut and average acorn. Robin’s Koginut, a winter squash bred specifically for nutrition and flavor, is coming for your taste buds, thanks to a new collaboration between an award-winning chef, a Cornell University vegetable breeder and a D.C.-born salad chain.
Resembling a small bronze pumpkin, the hybrid squash was developed by chef Dan Barber and agriculture professor Michael Mazourek after several years of trial and error at Barber’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Upstate New York, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Cornell University. Now, with Sweetgreen’s help, Barber hopes to take their strain of squash out of the “playpen of a white-tablecloth restaurant” and into the hands of everyday consumers.
“Truly delicious, nutrient-dense food at an affordable price is not an oxymoron,” Barber said. “Food providers need to get into this game and prove it.”
The new gourd is showcased in two ways on Sweetgreen’s menu: once as an ingredient in an elaborate salad and “naked and unplugged,” as Barber puts it, as a side dish. The Koginut Squash Bowl combines the roasted squash with organic spinach, wild rice, pears, fennel, basil and goat cheese ($11), while the roasted squash “fries” are served with a goat cheese dip. The smoky schmear, which is topped with crispy, toasted buckwheat and charred lime, is a vinaigrette often used by Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
“I like the fattiness of the cheese with the sweet squash,” Barber stated. “For fall, it’s really a winner.”
It’s also a bargain: a tasting menu at Barber’s farm-to-table restaurant costs about $200. The fries will only set you back $4.95.
For those still thinking “kogiWHAT?,” here’s a quick primer: Robin’s Koginut (pronounced ko-gee-nut) combines the even, meaty textures of a Japanese kabocha squash with the sweet, nutty flavor of a butternut squash. The vegetable’s flesh is bright orange thanks to its high levels of beta carotene, an antioxidant important for immunity, cancer prevention and eye health. The variety was named after the late organic farmer Robin Ostfeld, who helped contribute to the squash’s research and development.
Barber and Mazourek had success with another hybrid squash — the honeynut — around 2008. While most seed companies emphasize such factors as high yields, uniformity and shelf life, the pair wanted to develop a butternut squash that was less dense and more flavorful.
The result: a slightly sweeter, pocket-size butternut that quickly elbowed its way into the marketplace. In five years, the honeynut was being offered at local co-ops, on menus and chain stores, such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Costco.
In late February, the pair launched Row 7, a seed company dedicated to sustainable, flavor-optimized, nutrient-rich foods. The company offers 11 seed varietals, including a new heatless Habanada Pepper.
A day before the Row 7’s debut, one of Sweetgreen’s founders, Nicolas Jammet, contacted Barber, asking if Sweetgreen’s menu could showcase one of the company’s new foods. (This is the second collaboration between Sweetgreen and Barber, who developed a Blue Hill salad that incorporated overlooked food scraps, like cabbage cores and kale stems.)
“We’ve been super inspired by Dan’s book [“The Third Plate”] and the way he thinks about food,” Jammet said. “He’s really helped us think about the food system in a very different way, from food waste all the way to flavor to soil health — really every part of our food supply chain.”
The salad chain purchased more than 100,000 seeds of Koginut squash and selected six national farms to grow the crop in mid-May. “The exciting, yet scary, part was that no one had ever grown this seed at-scale,” Jammet said. “Even when we selected the Koginut squash, we hadn’t actually seen one [in person] yet.”
Jammet trusted Barber’s and Row 7’s vision, and Sweetgreen began brainstorming the two dishes with Barber’s team in early June. Harvest began in August and the Koginut dishes debuted on Sweetgreen’s menu early last month. The dish will remain on the menu until mid-December.
For foodies who want to experiment with the Koginut at home, the grapefruit-size veggie is available at Sweetgreen’s checkout counter for $5. Barber recommends slicing it in half, removing its seeds, brushing it with olive oil and salt, and roasting it for 90 minutes at 375 degrees.
And if you’re not within driving range of a Sweetgreen, fear not: Barber and Mazourek have their eye set on the shelves of Walmart within two years, because the squash has a higher yield, a thicker skin and a longer shelf life than the honeynut. Through cross-pollination, Mazourek has also been able to weed out its parent varieties’ less desirable traits (like excess water, which dilutes flavor).
“I’ve bred a lot of squash, and this is my best one to date,” Mazourek said.