Know Your Roots

By Chrissa Carlson
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As summer fades, so go the tender summer fruits. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant will produce until first frost, but they are slower to ripen, and the weary plants produce fruit that tells of the approaching end of the season, with thicker skins, and smaller size. So we transition back to eating plants that thrive in cool weather--salad greens, hardy winter cooking greens, carrots, beets, turnips and radishes--but in the fall, we add to that hard veggies born in summer but maturing in fall, including winter squash, sweet potatoes, and late crop potatoes, with sturdy skins and hard flesh that have the staying power to last into winter.

The idea that in eras gone by, folks lasted an entire winter on produce put up from the growing season is mystifying—surviving winter’s doldrums even without the concern of limited access to produce can be a challenge for modern sorts. So how was winter nourishment accomplished?

Canning may be the most commonly recognized method of putting up produce; canned vegetables and fruits require no refrigeration, removing one of the main limiting factors to bulk long-term storage. However, canning is a fairly energy and equipment intensive, and food safety requires the addition of acid, salt, or sugar to most produce to prevent microbial growth—which zaps nutrition and changes the flavor of the fresh product. Tomatoes are the ideal can-didate: with a low pH, they need no chemical modifications to stay food safe. If you haven’t done it yet this season, can ‘em soon, and can ‘em good.

A more back-to-basics approach, one that might not get you through the entire winter but can keep you eating local (with occasional imported indulgences) for several months, is to cellar roots and other hard-fleshed winter vegetables. Root cellars used to be standard issue in the outfitting of a home. They were small rooms in the basement or built into a nearby hillside that provided hard vegetables with what they need to stay their best: darkness, constant humidity, air circulation, and cool temperatures.

If your commitment to locavorism ends at the point that requires a basement renovation for inanimate winter residents, you can create similar conditions using only a large box and some sawdust or peat to insulate. When the market is flush with them, buy a large supply of potatoes, carrots, onions, and winter squash. If the veg is coming from your garden, harvest after a few dry days, and allow the roots to dry in the sun for a day or two. You can rub off some of the dirt, but be careful not to nick the protective skin, and don’t wash before storage—wet skins breed rot. Put a layer of sawdust or peat in your box, and lay down a layer of veggies, spaced close together but not touching. Add another layer of bedding and repeat until all veggies are stored, covering with a final layer of bedding, and covering the box with a lid or flaps. You may want to consider creating mixed veggie layers, so that retrieving a carrot doesn’t require digging through layers of potatoes, turnips, and winter squash to find what you’re looking for.

A constant temperature of around 34 degrees is ideal, but warmer is okay as long as the fluctuations are minimal—it’s the rise and fall of temperatures that signal root vegetables to break dormancy and sprout, the beginning of the end for the edibility of said root. So place the box in the coolest place you have—the basement, the garage, the carport. The layers of sawdust will insulate against drastic temperature fluctuations. When you retrieve veggies for use, check for and cull any that are showing signs of rot, which can spread to others in the box.

To keep your winter local diet lively, be sure you’re storing other flavors as well: now is a great time to cut and dry herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage. Pruning stimulates new growth, so you want to cut a few weeks before first frost to give new shoots a chance to grow and toughen up, avoiding frost damage. While dried herbs do feel like a sorry substitute after a season of enjoying them fresh, you may be surprised at the intensity of flavor in your home-dried herbs: those purchased from commercial suppliers are of indeterminate age, and have often lost potency.

As you dig in to winter vegetables, use those roots and winter squash for all they’re worth: starchy, creamy flesh, when cooked soft, purees to create silky soups; their natural sugars caramelize beautifully when roasted; and shredded roots, tossed with herbs, aromatics, a beaten egg and some flour, produce wicked-good savory pancakes. Now that doesn’t sound too much like suffering, does it?

Urban Farmhouse provides interactive seasonal cooking classes to individuals and groups. Email [email protected] to discuss your ideas for winter seasonal cooking classes and workshops.