Archive for March 12th, 2008

Building Stores on the Cheap

Sharon March 12th, 2008

I have to imagine that I’ve got a few readers out there who think that they could no more go out and buy 100lbs of this and 50lbs of that than they could fly.  When you live close to the edge, having enough money to take advantage of bulk purchasing is a tough problem - and buying more stores on top of our already-skyrocketing grocery bills is a struggle even for a lot of people who aren’t on the edge of things.  So how do you do this?

Well, I don’t want to deny that this is a huge challenge - and if you don’t have a lot of money, you need to think about this as a gradual process,  instead of a one or two shot “buy it all and go from there” the process should be gradual, adding a little more each time you shop.

Alan Hagan, who wrote the Prudent Food Storage FAQ (to which I linked in a prior post - it is an enormously valuable resource) wrote a great article about doing this some years ago for Backwoods Home Magazine.  While prices have gone up since then, Y2K is not a major worry, it is a great primer for someone who is thinking “I can never afford to do that.”  And his basic methodology can be adapted to a variety of sources.

 What Hagan does is allot a certain amount of money - in this case $10 per week, to food storage and show how you can build your storage gradually, for a comparatively small amount of money.  This is a really good way to think about this even if you have a lot of money - do X amount each week, rather than racing around trying to get huge quantities of things and everything you need to store it.  This also gets you a more balanced diet upfront.

 But what if you want to shop locally or in bulk?  The same reasoning still applies, but you’ll need the self-discipline to “hold over” you money for a few weeks or a month while you build up the money to buy what you want.  So putting aside some money for rice, or potatoes or carrots would definitely help.  But bulk foods are often less expensive than you think - my local farmer sells 50lbs of potatoes for $14 - an economy of scale you simply can’t get buying them by the lb.  Survival Acres for example offers 50 lbs of 16 bean mix for just under $50,while my grocer sell a pound of kidney beans for 2.50.  You’ll save a great deal in the long term this way.

What else can you do if you don’t have money?  Well, growing your own is often a bargain - if you haven’t got land, try a community garden or even asking if you can rent a vacant lot for a small (and I mean small) fee - or if you can grow on a neighbor’s lawn and split the produce. If you can’t afford seeds, you county extension can probably put you in touch with other gardeners who might be willing to share.

You can try gleaning - if your local area has a gleaning program, you can often get food for yourself and food to donate by simply working farmer’s fields after the commercial harvest.  If there isn’t such a program near you, you might consider starting one. 

There is often a great deal of free food out there for the harvesting - I see people letting fruit trees go unharvested, nuts on roadsides, etc… It cannot hurt to ask if you can have those apples or beech nuts. You also can forage for other foods - wild plants of all kinds are nutritious and delicious.  You definitely need good books - two of my favorites are Steve Brill’s (who teaches foraging in Central Park - you don’t have to be a country mouse to forage!) _Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places_ and Samuel Thayer’s _The Forager’s Harvest_.  Both are excellent books, and with a field guide and some practice, should help a lot.

If you visit your farmer’s market at the end of the day, there are bound to be things the farmer’s don’t want to take home.  This is what you should can/root cellar and otherwise store - you’d be surprised at how much you can get, particularly if you are willing to do the work of cutting the bird peck out of the tomato or the earworms out of the corn.

If there are places in your budget left to cut - cable tv, meals out, etc… then perhaps it is time to cut them, and put that money towards your food reserve.  I don’t claim that this is easy - but the closer to the edge you live, the more important it is that you have some kind of cushion - because as food prices go up, your vulnerability rises too.


Growing or Buying Fresh Food For Root Cellaring

Sharon March 12th, 2008

If you are going to use natural cool storage to keep vegetables and fruits in a root cellar, it matters a great deal which varieties you grow or purchase from farmers.  Some varieties simply will not keep, others will last nearly forever.  So as you are planning, make sure that if you intend to root cellar, you are choosing seed varieties (or talking to your local farmer) with keeping qualities in mind.

The definitive (and highly recommended) book on this subject is Mike and Nancy Bubel’s _Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables_ and they list many varieties there.  I’ll list varieties that have done well for me here, but their book is definitely worth owning if you are using natural cold temperatures.  

(BTW, I’m going to try and put together a store section of books on preserving food fairly soon, so you should be able to get most or all of the books I recommend through my site, if you’d like to.)

One note on root cellaring - while you don’t have to keep your food in a cellar (we keep ours in a partly insulated above-ground porch), you do have to keep it in a place that gets fairly cool.  In warm climates, even shallow under-ground spots may not be cool enough  - but if you live in a warm place, you may be able to grow year ’round, and not need a root cellar.  So think about whether your location has the right combination of cool temps, frostlines, and a need for storing fresh food for long periods.


Apples - We store *tons* of these, and the best keeping varieties we’ve found are: Roxbury Russet, Northern Spy, Winesap, Lady, Winter Keeper, Smokehouse, Winterbanana, Mutsu, Sheepnose, Cortland. 

Some apples, by the way, turn into mush instantly - Macs and summer apples are the worst, but lots of other varieties don’t store well, so make sure you are storing the right kinds. 

Beets - Lutz Longkeeper is by far the most famous storage variety, but Fedco reports it may have been dropped entirely from the commercial trade - Seed Savers still has it, a good reason to become a member and save your own!  Detroit Dark Red does reasonably well, but our favorite storage variety is Rote Kugel, huge and dense and delicious.  Seed is available from

Cabbage - January King and Glory of Enkuizen are my best keepers - I got seed for both from  Mammoth Red Rock, a red cabbage, stores almost as well.  I’ve had great luck with older heirlooms, and not bothered with hybrids here.  We’re still eating our own cabbage, and will run out before it spoils.

Carrots - I’ve found that most large carrots store fairly well. “Oxheart” stores very well for us in buckets of moist sand, but any thick variety will do well. 

Garlic - All my garlic lasts just fine - no issues there.

Potatoes - The big issue with potatoes is that you want to store late-crop potatoes, for the most part, because they haven’t been sitting around. Katahdin, Green Mountain, Carola, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, Purple Peruvian - all store well for us.

Pears - Bosc, Anjou, Bartlett and Kieffer all store a couple of months

Quince - I’ve only grown one variety - it seems to keep several months. 

Rutabagas - Laurentian keeps very well in sand.

Turnips - Purple Top White does the very best keeping for us, but Golden Ball is a close second and tastier.

Daikons - all seem to keep a couple of months

Onions - Of the OP Onions, New York Early does very well for me.  Stuttgarter, the common set hybrid also does very well.  For sweet onions, Candy will keep a month or two.   New York early came to me through Fedco, listed below.

Sweet Potatoes and Squash like the same winter temps we have - 50s and 60s houses.  So don’t store them in the root cellar, bring them into the house and keep them in  closet, under your bed, or in a convenient corner.  I’ve not noticed any difference between the sweet potato varieties we grow (Georgia Jet, Porto Rico). Johnny’s sells northern adapted sweet potato varities as does Pinetree

 Squash varies a great deal - there are lots of excellent keepers out there, but some of our favorites are - Marina de Chioggia, Butternut, Green Hubbard (the big ones keep much better than the little hubbards), Pink Banana, Futsu, Hopi Orange, Thelma Sanders - I get most of mine either from seed savers or Fedco    

I hope this helps someone!


The Chatelaine is Key: Life With Food Storage

Sharon March 12th, 2008

Ok, it is one of the dorkier puns of all time (for those who don’t know, “Chatelaine” means “the belt you keep your keys on” and refers to the days when managing a large household meant keeping the keys to the storerooms where a family’s wealth in food, spices and goods were kept), but I do want to emphasize that maintaining a family’s stores really is a job - a real and important one.  It is only part of what “household management” once consisted of, but it is an important part (note, Chatelaines are generally feminine, but this can be a guy thing just as easily).  If your experience of food management is like what mine was back before I started doing all this - that is, buying food, stuffing it in the fridge, eating some of it and throwing the rest on the compost pile, the sheer depth to which you get involved with your food will probably surprise you.

Let’s start with the apples.  Eli is apple obsessed, and as obsessions go, it is an easy one to be supportive of.  So every fall, we buy 10 - 12 bushels of apples (this is far more than any rational family would need) and keep them in bins on my front porch.  But that saying about how one rotten apple will spoil the whole barrel - that’s not just a saying.  As we get later into the season, one regular job involves sorting out the apples, taking out those that are getting wrinkled or showing brown spots, and doing something with the apples - applesauce or dried apples usually, but I’m always for pie. 

As the season winds down, I’m doing this kind of work more often with the fresh foods we root cellar - roasting a squash with a soft spot and freezing the contents, cutting bits off a potato.  Mercifully, the onions don’t need my attention much, although a few begin to sprout.  But we have to keep the potatoes in the dark so they don’t turn green.  The carrots are now mostly softening up, but that’s ok - soup time.  The sweet potatoes thankfully remain resolutely firm - I always forget a few until it is time to clean out the storage in july for replacement, and they are usually still good.

Food storage management is a cyclical process.  Even for bulk purchases at a supermarket, for example, you think about it four times, at least.  The first is when you buy the stuff, and haul it home.  The second is when you repackage it for storage (you can order grains and beans packed for storage, but they will be appropriately more expensive) - when you transfer things to their buckets or jars, get rid of as much oxygen as you can (I’ll talk more about this later today), and WRITE THE DATE ON THE JAR, BUCKET OR CONTAINER OF FOOD BEFORE YOU PUT IT AWAY.  Now I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ignored this advice, always to my regret.    Seriously, if you keep a marker by where you keep the food, it takes .02 seconds - and you will be glad you did it.

The next time you visit the food is when you take it out and use it - and then again when you reorder/buy more.  The big key, I find, with knowing when you need more of things is embedding some signal in the storage process that says “time to get more” before you actually run out.  That could be a mental rule that you put it on the list when you take the next-to-last one out, or that you do a weekly survey of what you have, or for larger quantities, mark a line halfway down on the bucket - when you can see the line, time to get more.  Keeping a pad and pen around so that you can write it down when you are thinking about it helps with the “out of sight, out of mind” problem I have.

Gardens only flourish when the “gardeners shadow” is there to make them flourish - but food is like that even after it leaves the garden in many ways.  Some foods will happily and quietly sit on the shelf for long periods without your attention, but even they deserve and need a quick scan over now and then. 

I try to do this while getting ready for passover each year, since I’m cleaning anyway.  I try and look at, touch and examine every jar, can and bucket.  It is a good time to make large donations to the food pantry, and a good time to sort out what isn’t good, or what really should be used sooner, rather than later.  It would be smarter to inventory more often, but I don’t.

This is also when I begin my estimates of what I’ll need for the next year.  I track when we run out of home produced things - for example, we ran out of strawberry jam in January this year, and peach, blueberry and raspberry by the end of February (the fact that my kids get bigger each year somehow escapes me in my planning most of the time).  We still have cranberry and black currant, but those aren’t the preferred choices - ok, that means I need to put up 10 more jars of each to see us through to strawberry season.

 I estimate how much rice we went through last year. If I know this, I can make 2 or 3 bulk orders over the course of the year, spacing it out.  For example, I know we go through about 200lbs of rolled oats a year - so picking up a 50lb bag every few months will keep my stores about even.  If I want to increase them, I might pick up two.

As I go through, I sniff the jars of herbs, to see if I need more.  Every year, I grow more varieties of medicinal and culinary herbs - do I need to plant more sage or pennyroyal this year?  Or just harvest more regularly?  As I’m placing seed and plant orders, I think ahead to what we might need if current patterns go forward. 

Where do we want to replace store bought with homegrown?  What do we wish we’d had more of, and what could we have made do with less of?  The garden and food storage are more closely tied than you’d think - for example, my root cellaring is much more effective if I grow varieties designed to store long times.  So my seed choices begin with preservation in mind (I’ll post a list of varieties designed for keeping later this week).

I check the top of the jars of home canned food by pressing them gently - if one of them pops up, the seal has broken and the jar is no good.  It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a great while.

The freezer too needs some checking - I don’t want to find unidentifiable things in the bottom this year.  Are we out of home frozen broccoli?  Here is where a list, made in the fall, is a huge help.  We use boxes and bins in our freezer, and write down what’s in them, and also the absolute number of things - if I know I have only 5 containers of frozen corn, it makes it easier to space them out. I make marks for them and strike one off as we use it. 

Some things get rotated in location - I buy bulk, fair traded chocolate chips.  Through the fall and winter they sit in the cool pantry - in the spring, they move (except for a few in a jar on a shelf) into the freezer - serving multiple purposes.   In the fall, the freezer is far too full to accomodate chocolate chips and it is plenty cool in the pantry closet.  In warmer weather, the chocolate chips stay fresh better in the freezer, and the freezer runs more efficiently when it is full. 

-Dry and Dehydrated foods need the least attention - but not none.  Check for bugs, make sure seals are tight, and then check once a year.

 - Canned foods should be checked several times a year, to make sure that no hard bumps have broken a seal, and that they are being used regularly.  They will last some years, of course, but the nutritional content is higher early on.

- Root cellared foods should be visited regularly - every few weeks in the fall, more often as the winter progresses.

- Frozen foods should be checked on every few months.

I use one notebook (paper, not a spreadsheet kinda girl ;-) ), to manage all my stores - I know how many buckets of rice and jars of corn relish I’ve got, and when I bought them.  I keep running lists of things to order more of, notes on what to do better next year. I always forget to write some things down.  I always screw up and let something rot that shouldn’t.  I always make mistakes with food storage, and so, most likely will you.  Sometimes they are big mistakes, but as I get better, they get smaller - mostly. 

You shouldn’t expect to do this perfectly - yes, it is important not to waste food.  But the truth is that the best way to learn to manage stored food, to become comfortable as Chatelaine of your household, is simply to do it, and that means mistakes.  But make them now, while they are easily reparable.