By age 4, Michael Mazourek was already fascinated by bell peppers, squash and sugar peas, the vegetables that featured prominently in his first garden.

Now, decades later, the newly designated Calvin Noyes Keeney Professor of Plant Breeding is engineering his own organic varieties in his lab and in Freeville fields, using a combination of traditional and cutting-edge techniques.

Among recent releases from his lab: the Habanada pepper, a mild habanero that still packs a powerful flavor punch; the Farmer's Daughter melon, which tastes a little like pear and slips off the vine when ripe; and the black-spined white Salt and Pepper cucumber, which has garnered awards for its unexpectedly sweet flavor.

Current projects under way include purple snap peas and miniaturized vegetables with vivid colors, stripes and polka dots that he hopes will charm children and serve as "delicious, cleverly disguised vitamins."

Mazourek says there is a growing market for unusual vegetables. One of his biggest advocates is celebrity-chef Dan Barber, who introduces diners at his famous Blue Hill restaurant to Cornell creations like curled snap peas and Honeynut squash. Barber's input has also informed Mazourek's research, as he uses the chef's suggestions to create new varieties.

Other organic growers also play key roles in developing and testing products from Mazourek's lab. The Peacework pepper was named after one of Mazourek's most active partners, the Peacework Organic Farm in Newark, N.Y. Mazourek says industry and grower input is vital and has allowed him to provide for underserved markets whose needs no one else is addressing.

Beyond the funky flavors and colors, Mazourek's vegetables have practical purposes: nutritional content, disease and pest resistance, and suitability for organic and regional growing conditions.

"We're interested in the whole package -- something that provides quality for the consumer and performs well for the farmer, with the minimal environmental impact," Mazourek said. "In organic farming, in particular, you have fewer crutches. It is largely up to the plant to be able to succeed on its own."

Although his subject matter may seem varied, cucumbers, squash and peppers have surprising similarities. Some of the same metabolic pathways that make peppers spicy also control the color of peas or the fibrous texture of squash. And they also share common killers -- funguslike oomycete pathogens such as late blight and downy mildew.