No matter how many signs of spring appear, from pussy willows to nesting birds, the garden always lags behind. Even when the soil dries out enough for planting, it’s a while before spring-sown crops turn into groceries. Greenery from windowsill herbs, cold frames and greenhouses can help, but for old-timers, the best way to bridge this seasonal “hungry gap” was always the root cellar.
People today are more likely to have a wine cellar — or a bomb shelter — than one built for roots. But those of us addicted to home-grown food find a way to keep the harvestby storing it in a shed that stays cold but doesn’t freeze, by walling off a corner of a basement with access to a ground-level window for ventilation, or even by burying a garbage can in the soil for in-ground storage. I’ve sometimes used an old, spare fridge.
Some storage crops keep better than others. Right now the champions in our root cellar (dug into the side of a steep bank) are celery root (a favorite), big storage carrots, potatoes, giant kohlrabi, beets and “beauty heart” radishes with their crisp magenta flesh. We even have cabbages that are still green and tasty. Crops that prefer a cool, dry room to the cold, damp atmosphere of the cellar include onions, garlic and winter squash. We didn’t grow rutabagas this year, but if we had they’d still be firm and tasty.
Individually, some of these might prove tiresome after a winter-long place on the menu. But together they offer much versatility. Carrots and radishes add bright color and crunch to stir-fries or fried rice. Cabbage, onions and potatoes team up in creamy, bacon-studded soups, along with crumbly freeze-dried sage picked from the plants in the herb garden. Beets, wrapped in foil and baked for several hours, are soft and caramelized, a prized addition to salads of young spinach or lettuce from the greenhouse.
Perhaps the best way to use a cache of winter vegetables is to make a medley of them, roasted together in the oven until tender. Trim them, scrub them, peel them if needed and spread them on a baking sheet, tossed in a favorite oil with salt, pepper and whole cloves of garlic. Stir occasionally and add rosemary toward the end.
Don’t be put off by the way storage roots look when you go to get them. You wouldn’t look so hot if you had spent the winter unwashed in a cold, wet, dark place. Some, especially the beets, might even have shriveled a bit. Never mind! Shriveling isn’t much different from the shrinking that comes from roasting. Only moisture is lost, not the nutrient content of the roots. After all, these are swollen roots or stem bases designed by nature to conserve carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals for future use. A concentration of the original mass, along with exposure to cold, enhances and sweetens the flavor, especially with carrots. Roasting sweetens onions, too. For the sweetest note of all, add a few parsnips sliced in chunks. If you planted them last spring, they should be perfect by now, right where they started in the cold soil of the garden, ready to cook.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
For a jump on spring, cut stems of early flowering trees for forcing indoors. Saucer magnolias, flowering cherries, apricots, quince and forsythia can be cut for the vase. Make fresh cuts whenever the water is changed — at the first sign of clouding. Wait until month’s end to force apple and dogwood blossoms.
— Adrian Higgins