Root Cellar Soup

On this frigid Saturday evening deep into February, I'm warming us up with a soup made from some of our stored fall harvest veggies. Into chicken stock seasoned with tamari, sesame oil and kombu seaweed I tossed some lentils, potatoes, beets, carrots, winter radishes and garlic. I could have added some onions too, but the kids always pick them out with wrinkled noses, so I decided to pass for tonight and challenge them with onions another time. All but the lentils came from our basement storage and all were fresh and ready to be used.

Yum! I hope everyone out there is staying warm and dreaming of spring!

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.



The Hungry Gap

This is the time of year known as the hungry gap. Generally for pre-industrial farming communities in the West this was the late winter/early spring period when the stored food from late year's harvest season was dwindling, but the garden was not yet producing much (if anything). Animal-based foods might also be in short supply if meat stores from the winter are exhausted and farm animals giving milk and eggs have less to eat and thus produce less. Some even posit that this is the origin of the Lent tradition of sacrifice.

In our house this time of year means I stop skipping past the produce aisle in the grocery store as our stored veggies from fall tend to have either gone bad or been eaten. If I lived at any other point in history the hungry gap would have been a time of real struggle, but for me in the modern world it means a dearth of local foods but no actual hunger as plentiful "back-up" veggies are available from all over the world. (I should admit, though, that I buy fruit year round for my fruit-crazy kids.) As I shop I try to reflect on the privilege I have to not go hungry while at the same time think meaningfully about the social and environmental impacts of buying food from halfway around the world.

Every year during harvest season abundance we try to plan our food storage for the coming months. Mostly this means canning, freezing and an improvised cold cellar in our basement stairwell. Some things work better than others and we tinker with the system each year. Last fall we added an improvised clamp to our storage repertoire, and as we came to the end of the carrots in the cold cellar last week we decided it was time to dig up the clamp and see how it did.

With the snow gone we moved some of the small rocks that were holding down the top layer of the clamp: a collection of old seed bags used to keep moisture out. Underneath that layer is straw for insulation, and under that a thin layer of dirt covering the veggie bins we buried.

Inside the bins are veggies we haven't seen in over 6 months.

We buried turnips, beets and carrots. Rose drew a map just after we made the clamp to help us remember where things ended up.

Eric was skeptical about the results since all January we had cold temperatures with no snow which means the ground got extra cold in those weeks without snow cover. In the end, though, things were not quite so grim.

The beets and turnips survived! I was thrilled to see fresh-looking beets as they have long since succumbed to rot in the cold cellar. The turnips in the cold cellar were still going strong, however, so perhaps next year we'll pick something else to bury. The carrots didn't fare so well, unfortunately...

Fingers crossed as we dig up the carrot bin.


Oh well. Did the extra cold environment affect the carrots' texture and make them more prone to rot? Was there contamination in the bin and the microbes eventually just took over? It's disappointing since carrots are such a staple veggie for us - I think Rose has had carrots in her school lunch every day since the late fall. We'll try again next year and see if different winter conditions lead to different results. For now we can celebrate the addition of beets to our hungry gap diet and look ahead to the abundance of summer.

Outdoor Vegetable Storage

Our basement stays a bit too warm for winter vegetable storage, so this year we've decided to try something new - an instant root cellar.

Digging a hole 

This method is somewhere between an old fashioned 'clamp' (a big ole pile of vegetables covered with straw and a thin layer of soil) and a tiny root cellar.

We dug some holes and dropped in plastic bins full of root vegetables. The plastic bins make the storage a bit more resistant to rodents than a regular clamp, and burying the bin uses the soil as an additional temperature buffer.

Hope it works!

After we buried the bins, we covered them with a few inches of straw for insulation and topped the whole thing off with some old seed bags to shed water (and keep the straw from getting soggy and matted down). We'll dig them out in a few months and see how it works!

There are lots of other ideas for outdoor storage in this article from Mother Earth News - we pretty much did their "Garbage Can Cellar" plan.