Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: November, Week 2

As I've been planning out this series, I never dreamed that this week's method of food preservation would become such a hot topic.

But surprise, surprise, a quick trip to Culinate this morning revealed that root cellars or cold storage are now the hip trend in preservation, as noted by the New York Times and Culinate's own blogger Harriet Fasenfest.

So what are root cellars and cold storage? The terms are pretty straightforward. It used to be the case that every home had either a space in the cellar (usually with a dirt floor) or a separate room or building heeled into the earth where late-season produce that kept well could be stored through the winter. Now that root cellars aren't quite so common and basements aren't so cool and damp, modern householders can look to other methods of storing food at appropriately cool temperatures, whether in unheated rooms or buried pits or barrels.

My ever-useful copy of Putting Food By offers a two-page chart of the various kinds of fruits and vegetables that store well in an unprocessed form, along with the optimum temperature and humidity ranges for that storage. For example:

--potatoes keep well at 35-40 F, in a dark humid environment with slight air circulation
--sweet potatoes prefer the air a little warmer and dryer, with more air circulation
--squash keep best around 55 F and dry
--apples should be stored near freezing in a moist atmosphere

Because of the differing needs, each kind of produce should be stored in separate bins or crates from the others. Apples, in fact, produce ethylene gas, which can cause other fruits to ripen quickly, and a rotten apple (the proverbial one in a barrel) can encourage all the others to rot, too, so they definitely need to be kept separate (and checked regularly). And don't forget that potatoes need to be kept in the dark, or they'll sprout! (They might anyway, but the dark definitely slows them down.)

Now, since I don't own the place where I now live, I'm not going to dig a big pit in the backyard for my root cellar, and I don't quite trust the basement, so I've decided to close off my studio (a small back room) and keep it largely unheated (furnace vents closed).

I've taken a lesson from the fair Titania, who last year kept a large amount of CSA produce in big storage bins layered with straw. So I pulled out my cooler and tried it with my CSA potatoes. You'll note that they are spaced far apart: perhaps they can be closer, but this along with thick layers of straw should guarantee enough air circulation, moisture, and lack of contact (and potential rot). Each layer is topped with more straw, and the lid remains secure for storage.

I wasn't able to fit all my potatoes in the cooler, but I made sure that the newer ones were toward the bottom so that I can use older ones first (starting with the stash in a kitchen cupboard). And I definitely made sure that these spuds were unblemished before adding them to a closed container -- I do not want rotten potatoes!

The cooler then forms the basic of my still-evolving cold storage corner. I have pickles (and beer) in the left-hand box, squash (each individually wrapped in newspaper to avoid contact bruising or blemishes) in the next box, a gallon of local apple cider vinegar, a basket of sweet potatoes (again, packed in straw), and a bucket full of 25 pounds of hard red winter wheat berries (more on that next week!). In another corner, I also have a hanging basket made of plastic-coated wire mesh that is full of garlic bulbs, and my boxes of nuts (still in shell) also reside in the room. The Renaissance Man -- bless him! -- has offered to bring me a metal shelving unit so that I can get a little more organized.

Other items that could go in here but haven't are onions (stored in a lower cupboard), pumpkins (out for show), apples and pears (which just got used up), and grains (haven't picked them up yet). I don't have a good set-up at this point yet for root vegetables, so I'm leaving my carrots in the ground until I'm ready to use them. They'll even survive frosts with a layer of straw on top.

If you haven't stocked up on these items yet, you can still find plenty of fall fruits and vegetables at local farmers' markets, farmstands, orchards, and even some grocery stores. Clear some space and fill it with produce like this, and you'll be amazed at how far you can stretch these foods into the winter, especially when you incorporate frozen or canned or dried goods into a meal with them.

Now, isn't that a cool idea?

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At 11/11/2008 9:18 PM, Blogger Tara said...

I went to our apple source in Rittman a few weeks ago to pick up one last load and they were closed. Can you suggest a good, reasonably-priced orchard that's still open in our area?
Great storage system you've got going on there.

At 11/12/2008 6:41 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

No! You're kidding! Bauman's closed for the year??? It's WAY too early for that. I know Melrose here in Wooster is still open, though, should you need further incentive to swing by... :-) They're not open Sundays, and I think they close at 5 most other days.

Otherwise, here's a good list of Ohio orchards -- maybe you'll find something new!

At 11/12/2008 7:30 AM, Blogger Tara said...

Actually, I usually go to a little family place called Sterlings. I'll have to try Bauman's. Thanks for the tip.

At 11/12/2008 7:47 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Hadn't heard of Sterlings -- in that case, hope Bauman's still does the trick for you. When I went last year, they had loads of apples and squash, too. I also got a couple of very small packages (very expensive!) of local maple sugar, which was a nice treat.

At 11/23/2008 8:20 PM, Blogger fasenfest said...

Nice to read of all the work your doing. I liked following your month by month guide to food preservation.

So you know, I do not think it is "hip" to have a root cellar even though the Times decided to show my picture for their story on the topic. I did suggest there were lots of others more knowledgeable then I to cover. They insisted they were into the urban/rural divide so there you have it. And they found me as a result of my work with a local non profit working on food security issues.

So there you have it. Funny I know. But "hip", hmmmm, not so much.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy reading your blog.

Harriet Fasenfest (www.portlandpreserve.com)

At 11/24/2008 7:04 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks, Harriet, for the clarification. Though really, I've come to view the NYT's takes on "trends" with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek -- especially when they're trying to make what's been around for a long while new and "hip" again, instead of pointing out the common sense nature of these things. Ah well.

Thanks for stopping by -- and I enjoy reading yours, too!

At 11/24/2008 9:47 AM, Blogger fasenfest said...

Yeah, I even think Michael Pollan is not speaking about anything new but rather a wisdom that was forgotten or co-opted by industry. "Don't eat anything your grandmother didn't" is what he likes to say.

So we take the promotion of a good ideal where we can and yet face up to the daunting amount of work going backwards can be. I often write about how odd it is to live in this post, post modern world and learning to balance the many ethics and interests inherent to it.

Root cellars are certainly a nod to the past but I am always cautious about advocating something that might well fade as another fad. And I do not think it will be the Times that will do that but ourselves.
But time will tell and it is good to learn of so many others trying to create a reasoned balance.

At 11/24/2008 10:02 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Very true, Harriet -- it can be very daunting. I doubt that these changes are going to be easy for any of us, even those who might never have gotten away from root cellars and food preservation and the like (though it will certainly be easier for them). Taking back more of our own food production and preservation does require a lot of work and the potential for failure.

But I am encouraged that more people recognize the value in "going backward" and doing more for themselves. I think that for those who persevere, the lessons will take hold and we'll be able to adapt accordingly. I hope so.

Times, Schmimes. :-) "WE are the ones we have been waiting for." And we're off to a good start.

At 11/24/2008 10:08 AM, Blogger fasenfest said...

"Good Start".....That we are.



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