Monday, 29 September 2014
When we moved here, for example, my mother-in-law introduced me to celeriac, a celery relative bred not for its stalks -- which are edible but foul-tasting, I can assure you – but for its bulbous root. Ours can grow as large as a human head, and can be left in the ground until needed or transferred to boxes of sand in the shed. My mother-in-law usually cooked them like potatoes, but I find them great raw, finely grated like parmesan and mixed in a spicy lemon dressing.
We grew scorzonera last year, a yellow-flowered dandelion relative that seemed to fall out of favour after the Victorian era. Its black roots taste great peeled and either boiled, steamed or stir-fried. Its cousin salsify has blue flowers and white roots, but can be treated similarly. We also grew chicory, not to harvest at the time, but to transplant to earth boxes in the shed in winter and force its blanched leaves upwards.
We have been enjoying kohlrabi, a cabbage relative bred for its root, which we peel and eat like an apple, or dice, boil and serve in a white roux. Yacon and occa originated in the Andes Mountains alongside the potato, but spuds became the staple food for millions while the first two continued to be eaten mainly by Incas. Of course beetroots are just coming in – more on those in subsequent weeks.
To preserve your roots, you might be able to keep them in damp sand – we do that with beetroots, and they stay good through the winter. You can also pickle them using the pickling recipe from a few weeks ago, or look up your own. You could also create a root cellar, a zero-carbon, zero-electricity, low-cost way to keep roots and other foods over the winter, simply by using the planet as your refrigerator.
Root cellars can take many forms, but they all work on the basic principle that vegetables in the right conditions stay alive, so they do not spoil, but also do not continue to grow, ferment, seed, bolt or any other plant activity. Since the temperature underground changes little throughout the year, this usually means keeping them partially underground and well-insulated. Perhaps the easiest things to root cellar are the roots the name implies – carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, turnips and so on -- often come from late-season plantings.
Root cellars can take many forms; you can make a fort out of straw bales, as a child might do with pillows, and keep food cool inside. You can dig an elaborate hobbit-hole into the side of a hill, like a bomb shelter. Some people have buried broken refrigerators and used them to store food.
Many potatoes and other vegetables can be piled into mounds and covered with earth and straw. Mounds should not be dug where water puddles, and while some gardeners dig out a mound first, we who live in the Bog of Allen might fine it safer to simply start on the ground level. The triangular pile should probably not be more than a metre high, to avoid the weight of the higher vegetables squashing the lower ones. Some kind of ventilation – a column of straw, a pipe -- needs to be put through the middle of the stack. The pile of potatoes are covered first with a layer of straw – 15 to 30 centimetres -- and then a layer of earth about half as thick.
Whatever your technique, many of the garden’s blessings lie unseen, and if properly cared for, will keep until they are need come the lean times of spring.
Photo: Borscht with dill, fennel and sour cream.