Winter Provisions

Each year that we've been growing food (both in the city and out here on the farm), we've gotten a little bit better at putting up the harvest for the winter months. And with each year that our preserving skills improve we gain a bit more independence from a catastrophically unsustainable agricultural system. At year 10, we're still learning as we go, but I'm pretty proud of what we've managed to achieve thus far.

Last week one final haul of veggies came inside in advance of a hard frost predicted for overnight, with winter not far behind.

What do we do with all these veggies? Quick, make pickles or something!

The rest of the haul (and some other things harvested bit earlier) end up in our basement storage place. We don't have a proper cellar, unfortunately, but an unheated stairwell does the trick.

It's cool in the fall and fridge temperatures in the winter. Here lie carrots, beets, cabbage and potatoes, which will last until almost spring. Last year we also experimented with creating an outdoor storage space in the soil itself, but after moving things around a bit in the stairwell and creating more space, we think we can get by without the clamp this time around.

The pickles that I'm currently fermenting on the kitchen counter will ultimately end up here for the winter. This is a new kind of preservation for us. We've done a bit of pickling here and there in the past, but this year I developed something of a minor obsession with lactofermentation (caught up in the biological romance of the whole thing - no really, I'm a big nerd who likes reading about microbes), so I've been trying my hand at pickling just about everything.

Tomatoes were the first thing we canned from our urban rooftop container garden back in 2005 and it's still where the majority of our effort goes during harvest season. Tomato sauce and paste are amazing, versatile, nutrient-dense foods, and can be used in practically every stew, roast, sauce or soup you could think of. This year I made 12 L of sauce and 10 L of paste, which actually fell short of the goal I'd set for myself, but I ran out of time. After we decided to get a pressure canner (I can't believe it took me a decade to even consider getting one!), our canning world expanded and we included a baba ghanoush-like eggplant dip and roasted red pepper paste.

Here are all the fruits, so to speak, of my canning efforts. On the top shelf is an assortment of jam, made from local berries and our own wild pears. I haven't bought jam in a couple of years and I don't intend to ever again. The kids are getting to be efficient berry pickers in their own right and jam making is an easy intro to canning in general, so I'm hoping someday I'll be able hand the whole task of putting up the berry harvest over to them.

Our final storage place is our deep freezer, which is also where some of our berries ended up. We've experimented with freezing corn and sweet peppers in the past, which we may do again in the future, but this year we didn't devote much time to freezing (which is ironic because it's the easiest form of modern food preservation). We learned last year that freezing cauliflower can sometimes go so wrong that the whole freezer requires a deep clean to get rid of the stink. Yuck. Never again.

Cauliflower wasn't our only mistake, but mistakes are how lessons get learned (for the self-taught, especially). I've certainly picked up a good number of lessons over the past 10 years. For example, this year I learned that wide mouth jars are better for freezing because the pressure of food expanding as it freezes can break the necks of a regular mouth jar. Oh, roasted pumpkin puree, I never even got to try you.

The deep freezer also has local meat, primarily grass-fed beef and chicken as well as naturally raised pork. Our meat consumption is not high, and buying in bulk and storing frozen helps with meal planning and cost and avoids the last minute dash to the grocery store to grab meat of unknown origin for dinner. Pastured meat has numerous health and environmental advantages, and staying local reduces our transportation footprint as well as allowing us to visit and get to know the farms where we buy our meat. In fact, we drive past one of these farms daily on the way to school and say hi to the cows grazing the pasture as we pass. This leads to some good conversations with the kids about where meat comes from and our responsibility as meat-eaters to ensure it's raised in a healthy, humane and sustainable way.

We've come a long way with our hippie back-to-the-land dreams. It's been a ton of work, and also immensely satisfying. Cataloguing our food stores for the winter gives me a great sense of accomplishment and pride in our efforts. Stepping outside the modern agricultural system and feeding ourselves from the land around us is one step towards a sustainable future, and I hope we can all get together there someday.