The Root of the Matter: Local Vegetables All Year ‘Round

roots
Written by Genevieve Rajewski
Recipe by Tim Wiechmann
Photographs by Conor MacDonald

Praying for cold weather seems out of character for any New Englander, particularly a farmer.

But down in Drumlin Farm’s stone-walled root cellar in Lincoln, crop managerMatt Celona is wishing for near-freezing temperatures. Crates of potatoes, beets and carrots are stacked 5 feet high around him. The towers will climb higher still over the coming weeks, as Drumlin staff and volunteers add more late-fall bounty to a stash that will last all winter long.

Above ground, unseasonably warm weather makes this an exceptional day for harvesting. The volunteers working today have removed their woolen hats. They savor the sun on their backs as they pull parsnips and radishes out of the ground and remove the vegetables’ leaves with deft flicks of a blade.

However, enjoying the fruits of this labor come March will require a different climate altogether. In the root cellar, Celona continues to frown at the thermometer.

RELEARNING A FORMER WAY OF LIFE

Eating locally year ’round is an age-old idea that many now scoff at as unpractical. However, in Massachusetts, a small number of farmers and chefs are turning to root cellars to sustain locavores through all four seasons.

Whether located in an actual basement, a hole in the ground or an above-ground structure covered with dirt, root cellars use the earth’s naturally cool, stable temperature to keep vegetables fresh for months at a stretch.

Crowded with produce ranging from the expected turnips to surprising magenta-centered radishes, Drumlin Farm’s root cellar has operated from beneath an outbuilding for more than 10 years.The partially finished basement extends the normal growing season’s reach, bolstering the farm economically.

“Instead of growing more crops out in field all winter under plastic tunnels, we grow more crops over the summer and store them for distribution throughout the winter,” explains Celona.

After building a small concrete-block structure into the side of a hill, Stearns Farm in Framingham is offering its second winter CSA program this year.

“We did it for our summer shareholders who, after 20 weeks of eating carrots straight out of the earth with us, were disappointed to go back to the grocery store,” says Stearns farm manager Kathy Huckins. “So even though it’s challenging to eat with the seasons in New England, we decided it would be worth the effort.”

“Really, we are just relearning what was once a way of life,” continues Huckins. For example, she notes that 100 years ago, many people slept with winter squash under their bed—because, somewhere along the line, someone figured out that this extra space offered ideal conditions for keeping squash fresh.

IT’S ALIVE!

Whether it’s a radish, an onion or a pumpkin, a vegetable continues to breathe after it’s picked. Controlling the effects of this respiration lies at the heart of the mad science of root cellars.  Vegetables “inhale” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide, water vapor and heat. With every “breath,” veggies (like people) are aging: ripening and eventually deteriorating. As water—which accounts for 80 to 90 percent of vegetables’ weight—is released from their tissues into the air, the produce also shrivels.

This moisture loss explains why a root cellar trumps a refrigerator every time when it comes to ensuring that, come February, fall-harvested carrots crunch as satisfactorily as the snow underfoot.  “I’ve kept carrots wrapped in plastic in my fridge for a long time, but they never end up looking as good as they do coming out of the root cellar,” says Celona. “That’s because refrigerators remove humidity as they cool the air.”

The natural and assisted humidity in a root cellar, on the other hand, keeps vegetables’ moisture from dissipating into the air, helping them retain their texture.

And unlike a refrigerator or walk-in cooler, a root cellar is also low cost and extremely energy-efficient. Maintaining the right temperature and humidity in a root cellar only requires working with the weather—usually with the help of some light engineering.

Both Drumlin Farm and Stearns Farm rely on thermostat-controlled fans to bring in outside air to cool the root-cellar rooms, as well as to push out the warm air inside. One thermostat reads the temperature outdoors, and another monitors the temperature inside the root cellar, explains Celona. When the outside temperature falls below a pre-set value, the fans turn on and blow cold air into the root cellar.When the root cellar reaches a pre-set temp, the fan turns off.

At Drumlin Farm, staff lug 5-gallon pails of water down crooked wooden steps to throw on the dirt floor to keep the room as humid as possible. In Stearns Farm’s dirt-floored root cellar, the moist earth alone has provided ample humidity.

Dirt on the vegetables themselves also helps shield them from water loss. Both farms store vegetables unwashed to prolong their shelf life in the root cellar, as well as in CSA members’ homes. The dirt also helps protect vegetables against scrapes and cuts that lead to spoiling.

A CHEF’S HOME CELLAR

Of course, not all root cellars are even this high-tech. ChefTimWiechmann, owner of T.W. Food Restaurant in Cambridge, runs a root cellar out of a friend’s basement in Marblehead.

It all started three years ago, whenWiechmann, a local-food devotee, found himself wondering what he was going to feed his diners over the winter. “Eventually I realized I could do a root cellar and just buy all the crops,” he says.

Using the excellent guide Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel, Wiechmann has taught himself how to store more than 2,000 pounds of crops purchased from local farms each year. He serves the vegetables all winter long at his restaurant and holds a special dinner (usually in January) to highlight the fruits of his labor.

To keep out sunlight—which causes some vegetables to deteriorate and potatoes to sprout—Wiechmann puts a double layer of black trash bags over the basement windows.

However,Wiechmann says the labor-intensive part is storing some 100 rutabagas, 100 purple-top turnips, 200 black and watermelon radishes, 400 white and orange carrots and 200Macomber turnips. To help retain moisture in these vegetables, Wiechmann hauls wheelbarrows of wet sand, soil and leaves from his friend’s garden down into the basement, where he buries the produce in layers inside large aluminum bins.

“The hardest part is digging them back up before work,” he says with a rueful laugh. “I go up to Marblehead every other week in the winter to grab a couple hundred pounds of produce to bring back to the restaurant. It takes three or fours hours each visit.”

TO EACH (VEGGIE) HIS OWN

“Vegetables, like people, have their own needs and idiosyncrasies. To get the most out of them, you have to be mindful of their likes and dislikes,” explains Huckins.

Accordingly, those with root cellars employ a variety of storage strategies and preparation techniques.

Carrots, beets, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, celeriac, salsify, winter radishes and kohlrabi want to be very cold and extremely moist—think temperatures between 32 and 40 degrees with 90 to 95 percent humidity.  The same is true for broccoli and Brussels sprouts, which can be stored short-term in a root cellar.

Potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower (which can be stored short-term) prefer to be just as cold but not as moist (liking their climate closer to 80 to 90 percent humidity). To best store this produce, both farms have created smaller, less-humid rooms within their root cellars.

Onions, shallots and garlic like conditions drier (closer to 65 to 70 percent humidity) but still cold—and are not stored by either farm in the root cellar. Drumlin stores this produce in a barn attic, and Stearns Farm stores its in an unheated greenhouse.

Winter squash, pumpkins and sweet potatoes want conditions warmer (around 50 degrees) and drier than most root-cellar vegetables.Wiechmann leaves his out unburied in his cellar, and both farms store their squash in unheated greenhouses.

Apples, a staple in traditional root cellars as well as in Wiechmann’s, emit ethylene gas after they’re picked. The gas hastens rotting in many vegetables and also causes potatoes to sprout, soWiechmann stores his fruit in a separate room in the cellar.

While most vegetables prefer to go straight from the ground into the root cellar, winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, onions, shallots and garlic want to dry out a little (or “cure”), which hardens their skin and protects them from injuries that could let in rot during storage. And sweet potatoes aren’t actually sweet until they’ve cured for a week at 80 degrees, which converts some of their bitter starch to sugar.

SPOILER ALERT

For even the most agriculturally savvy, learning the nuances of individual root cellars and the myriad vegetables that can be stored within requires trial and error.

“I take a financial risk with the root cellar, as I lose some crops. Out of a couple thousand pounds of produce each year, I’ve lost 100 to 200 pounds of expensive stuff,” admitsWiechmann. “But I am getting better at it.”

Drumlin Farm still struggles with where best to store its winter squash.  “We have it in our unheated greenhouse, but the squash would prefer a stable temperature instead of swinging between 34 and 65 degrees.  We tried it in the root cellar but mold grows more quickly there, and the squash is susceptible to chipmunks and mice if we keep them in our barn. The unheated greenhouse is our best option, but we still lose a fair amount of squash to rotting.”

Fortunately, given that most root-cellar owners grow their own crops, spoiled food usually ends up on the compost pile, where it will contribute to next year’s vegetables. And the spoil rates are nothing compared with the frightening amount of commercially grown vegetables that spoils before purchase in the United States.

WORTH THE WORK

A winter CSA requires a different approach to eating than most New Englanders are used to. For example, “daikon radishes and rutabagas are foods that most people are not familiar with cooking,” says Celona.

“The default is to fall back on roasting root vegetables,” he continues.  “That’s great but also why we’ve introduced more radishes, which [along with carrots, cabbages and onions] can be eaten fresh. It’s important to pursue a diversity of both cooking and noncooking options in a winter share.”

“I made a parsnip and potato gratin early on,” recalls Kate Stavisky, who joined the Drumlin Farm winter CSA in 2003. “I ate it and thought to myself, ‘This is fine but I’m glad that I don’t have to eat only this all winter or I’d starve to death.’”

The labor and learning involved in starting to eat locally in winter quickly becomes worth it, say those blazing the trail inMassachusetts.

While her winter share “definitely had an adjustment period,” Stavisky says it ultimately encouraged her to experiment with new recipes. She even started a blog to share her experiences (tallkateskitchen.  blogspot.com). “Now, parsnips have completely grown on me,” says Stavisky. “I’ve gotten to the point where I love them and genuinely look forward to them being in season.”

“You can’t eat only food from a root cellar every day, but you can sustain a large part of your diet all winter long,” saysWiechmann. “I am proud that, even though it’s February in New England, my Valentine’s Day menu features a host of local foods. And the flavors are great.”

Genevieve Rajewski would love to build a root cellar but will settle for a potato drawer. A frequent Edible Boston contributor, Genevieve has written for Smithsonian,Wired.com, Washington Post Magazine and the Boston Globe. Read her articles at www.genevieverajewski.com and follow her local “meat club” adventures at www.wickedtastyharvest.com.

Conor MacDonald is a photographer and writer in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, studying the fruits of man and nature. www.conorjamesmacdonald.com.