Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Musings on our kinship with storage vegetables, and some useful tricks for cellaring your own vegetables throughout the winter
Written by Anna Sigrithur
By now, on farms all around Manitoba, the harvest is done and farmers are marketing their final vegetal wares of the year. Storage crops: those larger, denser creatures whose flesh we hoard in our homes for the coming winter. No longer is it time for the zephyr crunch of lettuce-- November through April it is time for the earthly thud of onions, shallots, garlic, potatoes, beets, and squash!
These vegetables may, in fact, last until next summer, though, admittedly, only the runty ones at the bottom of the sack ever make it that far. Left to their own devices, however, few would last so long: Left on the vine in the damp field, they would slump and fester; left in dry boxes in the basement they would shrivel and sprout.
So instead, as farmers have known for millennia, they must first be cured.
Laid out by the hundred in a shady spot with a good cross breeze-- and soon-- the Russet's taut surface begins to grow thicker and tougher, protecting the creamy starch inside. If it grows humid or rainy, faithful farmers transfer them to the barn and open the windows to let the air through. Listen closely and hear the outer layers of an onion crinkle as they tighten like papery jackets over lily flesh. A butternut's smooth taupe skin, at first puncturable with a fingernail, hardens and dries into a barrier that may be fortified with a burnishing of oil or wax. Carrots and beets are laid gently to rest into layers of sand and moss where moisture circulates but does not moulder.
Practically speaking, these curing methods provide a gradient of humidity from the inside to the outside of the vegetable. They foster the thickening of the vegetable’s summer skin, creating a more resilient barrier to microbes, pests, and desiccation. We cure our food so that it may last, providing us nutrients throughout the winter-- but we also do something else. These tender rituals are an initiation, making our closer relatives than those ephemeral leafy crops of summertime. We give them human skins.
'To cure' comes from the latin curare, originally ‘to take care of’— in later usage ‘to heal’. This etymology is illustrative of the fundamental root of agriculture which is the relationship of mutual dependence between humans and plants (and microbes and insects, and so on). This relationship, it could be argued, is one of care and has been understood worldwide, and for millennia. And despite 20th and 21st Century industrial interventions into farming (and the subsequent, inarguable disconnection from the land) the same kernel of relationship between plant and human is still there.
Images: A 1930s Texas woman emerges from her root cellar; carrot storage diagram from a WWII pamphlet; Annie Yellow Bear preparing camas bulbs for winter storage
Yet curing-- or perhaps more generally, preparing crops for long-term storage-- does not instantly come to mind when one thinks of agriculture. Perhaps this has something to do with the domesticity of it; the public crop of the field and market becomes homely and private once in the root cellar. Or perhaps it is that our unwillingness to acknowledge the mutuality and care between species; the admittance of our reliance on the species around us and a growing uneasiness about our increasing debt to them. Or perhaps it is simply that, collectively, we don't know as much about food production as generations past did. But to deny the care that goes into farming, especially smaller scale, mixed farming, is to not understand farming at all.
So perhaps, now, at this time of year, as the lucky among us make plans to stockpile tasty, local food in our homes, we too may take part in in this ancient act of transformation and care. Perhaps you have ordered in bulk from your favourite local farmer, or even purchased one of our own Harvest Veggie Boxes and would like to store your spoils outside of the refrigerator-- without them spoiling! Below are some tricks on how to do so.
Cellaring your own Veggies
Before you Start:
Don’t wash the vegetable with water after harvesting or receiving it. Scrub off any excess dirt with a brush or dry cloth. (Your vegetables may have been washed by the farmer; if they have, do not fret. You will still be able to store them, just perhaps not until June!)
Air circulation is key. Harvested crops kept too close together will rot rather than cure.
Don’t store damaged vegetables. If you nick something while harvesting, use it right away.
Don't trim crowns off of beets, carrots or other root crops; simply trim greens close to the crown.
Most Commonly Cured and Cellared Vegetables:
Potatoes (especially Russets, Yukon golds, Norlands, Katahdins, Kennebecs)
Onions, shallots and garlic.
Winter squash (not zucchini or soft summer squash; winter squash have harder flesh and thicker skins, like butternut, hubbard, or acorn).
Radishes (that's right-- watermelon, black, and daikon radishes all store very well!)
Potatoes - Store in a box in a dark, slightly humid environment that is between 5 and 12 degrees Celsius.
Onions/ Garlic - Store cured onions and garlic in a basket or a crate to ensure proper air circulation. Onions prefer a cooler storage environment so they don't sprout or go mushy: ideally keep them in a location that is between 2 and 7 degrees Celsius.
Squash - Squash are quite easy to keep. Simply store in a location with good ventilation between 12-17 degrees Celsius.
Beets/ Carrots/ Radishes - These more tender root veg require a bit more effort to cellar outside of the fridge, but it can be done! Lay alternate rows of roots and sand in a rubbermaid bin or box. Play sand from the hardware store works just fine! The roots should be stored crown to tail in rows, and the final layer should be well covered.
Happy cellaring to you, and may you find moments of tenderness and care in the months to come!