Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Burrows, Cellars, and Other Holes in the Ground

Punxsutawney Phil has done it to us again.* His annual shadow expedition has resulted in the proclamation that winter is here to stay for another six weeks. For those of us in colder climes, the hats and scarves get to hang out on the mudroom hooks a bit longer. And opportunities for warm, cozy meals continue on well into March.

At the Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School class I attended last month, Chef Ben Hasty focused much of his efforts on using local ingredients. This can be a challenge during non-growing months in cold areas, but use of foods stored from the autumn harvest can contribute many components for winter meals. (Just think, in the days before grocery stores and refrigeration, it supplied all of them.)

There are three big benefits to eating local – getting the freshest foods possible, supporting your regional farms and shops, and reducing carbon emissions that occur when food is shipped. If you’re a gardener, a root cellar is a great way to create your own stash. With the trend toward “slow foods,” there’s renewed interest in these simple and highly effective storage rooms. Look here and here for just two ideas on how to build your own.

My childhood home – built in the late 19th century – has a root cellar in the “basement” (with its stone walls, tree trunk support beams, dirt floor, and about six inches too few of head room). For years, my mother kept a garden nearly half the size of our side yard – about an eighth of an acre. We ate heartily the fantastic fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs during the summer and fall, and then harvested like mad to put up food for the winter. Potatoes, squash, onions, carrots, and various other vegetables would be stored in bins, while preserves were made of other things like cucumbers (bread and butter pickles), tomatoes (ketchup much more like this than the stuff in plastic squeeze bottles), and berries (jam!). It all went “down cellar” for retrieval at a later date.

For those of us who have not inherited our parents’ ambition and ceaseless energy, most communities have a selection of green grocers who are willing to do the work for us. Although the farm stands are closed in February, the food stores are here to offer the best selection possible in any given season. Remember to check out the smallest retailers – they sometimes have treasure on their shelves.

Of course, the internet can be a good resource for finding information about seasonal produce. Fruit and vegetable charts are available at sites like CUESA (The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture ) and from ambitious bloggers who compile the information into neat lists. Another nifty tool, this website lets you enter the season and state to determine the best produce.

Once you’ve got your winter food, remember to check our website for inspired ways to prepare it all. Potatoes, carrots, even turnips all appear in our recipe box. Happy winter cooking!

* Apparently, Phil has some competition.

Groundhog photo by Gilles Gonthier under a Creative Commons license

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