Putting Down Roots

In tough economic times, people are rediscovering the old-fashioned root cellar.

By Lisa James

September 2010


Until not all that long ago, eating during the winter wasn’t as easy as driving to a supermarket. “If people from ages past could stand in front of even an ordinary grocery store shelf, the variety and abundance would floor them,” say Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie, authors of The Complete Root Cellar Book (Robert Rose).

Back then people preserved their own winter food supplies in root cellars, “cool, usually humid places ideally suited to storing vegetables, fruits, nuts and other foods,” say Maxwell and MacKenzie. Today, a desire to save money has combined with a back-to-basics ethic to revive interest in this venerable food storage system. But Maxwell and MacKenzie also cite more profound reasons for building a root cellar, desires “for the deepest kind of food craftsmanship and a way to contribute to effective environmental stewardship.”

Storing food in the unheated, dirt-floored basements of yesteryear stopped the freezing and thawing that would leave produce, as Maxwell and MacKenzie put it, “an ugly, putrid mess.” However, because today’s basements tend to be heated living spaces, creating an old-time food storage area requires modern home-building technology. The contemporary root cellar incorporates drainage and venting systems, along with insulation, to create frostproof spaces that are damp without being overly wet. Produce that stores well under such conditions includes apples, beets, broccoli, carrots, celery, green beans, pears, potatoes and turnips. Garlic and onions favor cool, but drier, conditions.

Root cellars “allow us to connect personally with food in ways nothing else can match,” say Maxwell and MacKenzie. If you’ve got some construction skills, building your own root cellar can provide returns that go beyond dollars and cents.

 

ET Recipe

Quick Chili-Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

4 oblong baking potatoes, cut lengthwise into thin wedges
4 carrots, cut into 3/4” slices
2 small zucchini, cut into 1” chunks
1 1/2 cups corn kernels (frozen or canned, drained)
1 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1 1/2” chunks

1. Preheat oven to 425°F, with racks positioned at the bottom and top of the oven.

2. Combine vegetables in a large bowl. In another bowl, combine chili powder, oregano, salt and oil; pour half over vegetables and toss to coat. Divide vegetables evenly between two large, rimmed baking sheets and spread into even layers.

3. Add breadcrumbs to remaining spice mixture; stir to combine. Add chicken and toss to coat. Arrange chicken on top of vegetables, spacing out as much as possible.

4. Roast for 25 minutes, switching sheets between racks halfway through,
until chicken is no longer pink inside and vegetables are tender.

Serves 4. Analysis per serving: 472 calories, 34g protein, 13g fat (2g saturated), 8g fiber, 60g carbohydrate, 642 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from The Complete
Root Cellar Book by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie
(Robert Rose, www.fireflybooks.com/RobertRose)

 

Preserving Produce at Home

In the era before refrigeration became commonplace, no farmhouse root cellar would be complete without row upon row of jars holding home-canned produce. Today, like root cellars themselves, the idea of preserving food at home is enjoying a revival. “For many, the tradition of preserving food has skipped a generation,” says Sherri Brooks Vinton, member of the Chefs Collaborative and author of Put ’Em Up!: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook (Storey). “Putting up food is about nourishing cultural and culinary traditions that should be enjoyed and preserved.”

Home-canned food offer several advantages over the store-bought stuff, according to Vinton. The first, of course, is taste, not only in terms of freshness but also in your ability to tailor recipes to your personal preferences—mild salsa versus hot, for example. You control the quality of the produce you use, whether it comes from your own garden or from a local grower (where buying in bulk can often get you a break on the price). What’s more, home preserves are environmentally friendly.

“Preserving locally grown food reduces reliance on imported produce, so it minimizes energy-intensive shipping,” says Vinton.

Dilly Beans

Yield: 8 pints
4 lbs green beans, washed & ends snipped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 cup fresh dill weed
2 tbsp dill seed
1 tbsp black peppercorns
4 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp salt

1. Cut beans into lengths 1” shorter than the pint jars. Pack them vertically in eight clean, hot canning jars (see step 3 below), somewhat tightly. Divide the garlic, dill weed, dill seed and peppercorns among the jars.

2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a medium nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over the beans to cover by 1/2”, leaving 1/2” of headspace between the top of the liquid and the lid.

3. Can using the boiling-water method: Use canning jars, the ones with the two-part lids (chip- and crack-free jars can be reused, but the lids should be brand new) along with a large stockpot (or special canner) that is at least 3” taller than the jars. Wash all jars and other equipment, placing the lids bottom-side down in a small, heatproof bowl. Place a canning rack (or layer of metal jar rings placed thread-side down) in the pot, load with empty jars, fill with enough water to fill and cover jars, and bring to a boil. Use specially designed canning tongs (do not use regular tongs, which can slip) to remove each jar from the water, pouring the water into the bowl with the lids to soften the rubber rims; place empty jars on a towel-covered surface. Once the jars are filled with beans and brine, run a chopstick, plastic knife or bubble tool around the inside to release air bubbles and a damp paper towel around the rim to clean thoroughly. Using tongs, your fingers or a magnetic lid lifter, grab a lid from the bowl and center it on a jar; then screw on a lid ring until just fingertip-tight—you need to leave room for gases to escape during canning. (When the jar begins to spin on the towel, it’s tight enough.) Repeat with remaining jars. Use the canning tongs to lift each jar and place it in the pot, making sure the jars are covered by 2” of water. Cover the pot and bring to a rolling boil. Lower the heat slightly to keep water from escaping the pot but retaining the strong boil. Process for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat, remove pot lid, and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Use the canning tongs to remove the jars straight out of the water—do not tip over to spill the pool of water on top of each jar, since they haven’t sealed yet. Set aside for 24 hours; then check that the jars have sealed before storing them in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

Source: Put 'em Up! by Sherri Brooks Vinton, used with permission from Storey Publishing (www.storey.com); photography ©Kevin Kennefick.

 

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