Archive for November 14th, 2011

Filling the Root Cellar

Sharon November 14th, 2011

As those of you who have been reading for a while know, I don’t actually have a true root cellar.  Instead, what I have is a south-facing sunporch that doesn’t freeze until we get to about -20 (which happens about 1-2x per winter here).  So for 99% of the time between November and March, I have a highly functional, if imperfect cold space for storing produce.  I hang blankets over the windows to prevent excess light from sprouting tomatoes and keep spare blankets for tucking over the produce if things get crazy-cold.

We put up, for a family of 7, about 250lbs of potatoes, 2oo lbs of onions, around 50-60 good sized squash of various types, 100lbs each of carrots and parsnips (we would eat more carrots than this, but they don’t store as well as some others), 12 bushels of apples (lots of apple fiends in my house, including our new little guy, M.), 200 lbs of sweet potatoes, 60+ heads of cabbage, 100+ heads of garlic (we really like garlic ;-) ) and lesser quantities of beets, turnips, celery root, pears, quinces and other vegetables.  While some things will run out over the course of the winter, we will still be eating onions, potatoes, squash and apples into May most years.  Add to this our in-garden crops (usually more than this year, since we lost the garden to Hurricanes Irene and Lee), which usually include spinach, scallions, kale and winter lettuces, and our preserved and stored food – bulk grains and legumes, condiments and home-preserved items and this forms the bulk of our diet for a good portion of the year.

Normally we fill the cellar gradually, over the course of a sustained harvest season.  With the destruction of our fall garden and many of our summer crops, this year is a little different – our root cellar produce is coming from further away, from farms up in the hills and downstate that weren’t hit as hard as the surrounding ones.  We’ve always relied at least a little on other farms to supplement a bad crop in a difficult year or to expand on what we grow (for example, we grow sweet potatoes here, but it is just too cool and wet for them to be totally happy – mine run small, whereas the sandy-soiled farms in the valley produce real lunkers great for roasting, so we always buy some), but this year we’re doubly grateful for the interconnections that bring food from further away (still not terribly far) to us.

There’s an art to timing root cellaring – for those with true underground storage with fairly consistent temps, this isn’t such a big deal, but for us, we have to wait until things are fairly consistently cold.  An occasional January thaw or November or March day in the 60s is no big deal if the nights are cool – the blankets and insulation help keep things stable, but an extended warm stretch can cause problems.  Still, in general some temperature fluctuations are mostly handled pretty well – at least by everything but the carrots.

We are unable to keep perfect humidity or apples entirely away from potatoes, and find that this just doesn’t matter that much.  Most of the foods in our cellar last fairly well – we could optimize, of course, but that would require more energy and resources than we want to put into it, and we find it more useful to put our energy into say, making kimchi out of the carrots and cabbage nearing their end, or making applesauce out of the apples that shrivel.

This sort of lazy-woman’s root cellaring is the kind of thing that probably many families can do – finding an underused closet and cutting some ventilation, or walling off a corner of a basement, porch or mudroom with insulation enough to keep things from freezing.  The money and time it saves is enormous, and the quality of food we get is also wonderful – things taste fresh, sweet and delicious for months, and it allows us to put our food dollars where we most want them – back in our pockets in years when we grow our own, in the pockets of nearby farmers the rest of the time.

The meals that come out of our cellar are wonderful too – we always have the ingredients of delicious, flavorful meals – a little broth and we’ve got vegetable soup with rich, complex flavors.  A little meat and we have stew.  Some curry paste and we’ve got curried vegetables.  Some tofu and we’ve got a stir-fry.  Add chicken and we’ve got a classic sabbath dinner of roasted chicken, roasted vegetables and greens.  Shepherd’s pie, lentil soup, massaman curry, bubble and squeak, kimchi-vegetable soup, sweet potato pie… it all comes almost effortlessly from our vegetable cold storage.

Sharon