Now our hemisphere has tilted away from the sun. As we hurtle toward the equinox, every day is noticeably shorter. The basil is turning brown in the cold nights and the apples are falling from the trees.
It’s time to prepare for winter. As I write this, the stove is simmering a big pot of plum chutney, which I hope to soon spread upon the wild game with which I hope to soon line my freezer. Meanwhile the farmers are weary. Months of constant movement and sleep deprivation have caught up, and you can find them out standing in their fields, gazing absently into the distance, surrounded by great dirty piles of food. Potatoes, onions, shallots, beets, turnips, rutabaga and other roots. Garlic hangs inside, squash cures in the sun, and carrots stand ready for digging. Now is the time to bulk up on winter rations.
While the time for plucking zee nectar has sadly passed, the task at hand is even more important. This is the glue behind the glitter, the time to stash the staples and do the work necessary to maintaining a year-round pantry.
Sure, you can also buy your food at the store whenever you need it. But when February rolls around and you find yourself paying considerably more for a pound of potatoes than you do now, here’s why: you are paying for months of storage space for that food. And you are paying for shipment from that storage space, wherever it may be. And in February—as opposed to now—potatoes are scarce, and the laws of supply and demand conspire with these other factors to jack up the price.
This discussion, of course, is about more than just money. A large stockpile of food provides a unique brand of satisfaction, as does the corresponding lack of necessity to always be running to the store. When you do go shopping, it’s for things like oil, rice and chocolate. Meanwhile, you get to look at your plate and see ingredients that you recognize: venison with homemade chutney next to potatoes from your stash, with a side of frozen kale cooked with onions, garlic and maybe some morels from last spring.
How much storing you do depends on what kind of storage facilities you have. Books abound with building instructions and diagrams for root cellars, ranging from glorified holes in the ground to wood-framed, stone-lined caves to railroad boxcars buried in the sides of hills—assuming you have a hill and a boxcar.
I have neither. Nor do I have an unfinished, unheated basement or crawlspace. But I do have a garage that stays pretty cool all winter. Last year it got a little too cool during a January cold snap and I lost my squash and onions, but the garlic survived. If I hadn’t been out of town I could have heated the space enough to prevent the freezing of my stash.
Those same books will usually have instructions for preserving your food. And while my words are a pale substitute for these dense compendiums of information, I’ll leave you with a few tips to consider:
Don’t scrub food before storing it. Dampness invites mold, and scrubbing can compromise the protective skin on some veggies. Better to clean at the time of use.
Keep potatoes in a dark, cool, dry place, in ventilated bags, or packed with straw in boxes.
Store winter squash on shelves in your cool, dark place. Check them periodically for mold, which you should wipe off with a cloth dipped in vegetable oil. If mold starts to take over a squash—or anything else—get rid of it ASAP, before it spreads. Onions, garlic and shallots—otherwise known as the edible lilies—do well in mesh bags hung in cool, ventilated spaces. Leeks, the other edible lily, are best frozen.
Kale turns sweeter after a frost. Thus, true connoisseurs will bide their time until then, at which point they will blanch and freeze. Ripe apples, pears and other fruits give off a gas called ethylene, which is a ripening hormone. If you store ripe apples near potatoes, the potatoes will sprout. Ripe or over-ripe fruit will cause their neighbors to quickly ripen, too—hence the cliché about one bad apple. Sort your fruit carefully, and store in a well-ventilated place away from vulnerable foods.
One exception would be tomatoes, which should be covered for light frosts and harvested before a hard frost. I like to pull the whole plant, tomatoes on, and hang it upside down near the apples, which will hopefully encourage the tomatoes to turn red.