by Chef Boy Ari

A few weeks ago I encouraged you to pluck zee nectar and relish the exquisite pleasures available at the apex of the growing season. That was a fleeting moment of sweet corn and peaches, of right here, right now, as we sipped from the cream of summer.

Now our hemisphere is tilting away from the sun, and suddenly, every day is noticeably shorter. The basil is turning brown in the cold nights, the apples and leaves are blowing off the trees. It's time to prepare for winter. On my stove right now, cooking slowly, there is plum chutney, which I plan to serve with the wild game that I hope will soon line my freezer. Meanwhile, the farmers are weary. Months of constant movement and sleep deprivation have caught up, and you can find them in their fields, gazing absently into the distance, surrounded by great dirty piles of potatoes, onions, shallots, beets, turnips, rutabaga and other bounty. Garlic hangs inside barns, squash cures in the sun, and carrots stand ready for digging. Now is the time when produce is cheap.

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 stock a year-round pantry.

Sure, you can also buy your food at the store when you need it. But when February rolls around and you're paying $2 for a pound of potatoes, here's why: you're paying for months worth of storage space for that food; you are paying for shipping the food from that storage space, wherever it may be, to the store. And in Februaryas opposed to nowpotatoes are scarce, and the law of supply and demand conspires with these other factors to jack up the price.

This discussion, of course, is about more than money. A large stockpile of food provides a unique brand of satisfaction, as does freedom from always running to the store. And when you do go shopping, it's for things like flour, oil, rice and chocolate. At meal time, you look down at your plate and see ingredients that you recognize: venison with homemade chutney next to potatoes, with a side of kale, which was cooked with onions, garlic and maybe some morels from last spring. How much you store depends on what kind of facilities you have for frozen and cool storage. Owning a freezer is key. Meanwhile, 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.

Those of us who don't have hills or box cars or holes to dig might yet have an unfinished, unheated basement or crawlspace, or an unheated garage that stays cool all winter. Last year, it got so cold during a January cold snap that I lost my squash and onions. Darn! But everything else survived.

Those root cellar plans are usually found in the same books that give instructions for preserving your food. Another good source of information on food preservation is Joy of Cooking . And while my words are admittedly a pale substitute for such dense compendiums of information, I'll leave you with a few tips to consider as you prowl the aisles of the farmer's market looking for grub to stash: Don't wash 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 a 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 squashor anything elseget rid of it ASAP, before it spreads.

Onions, garlic and shallotsaka the edible liliesdo well in mesh bags hung in cool, dry, ventilated spaces. Leeks, the other edible lily, are best frozen.

True connoisseurs of kale bide their time until after a frost, which makes the leaves sweeter. Then they blanch the kale and freeze it.

Ripe apples, pears and other fruits give off a gas called ethylene, a ripening hormone. If you store ripe apples near potatoes, the potatoes will sprout. Over-ripe fruit will quickly cause neighboring fruit to ripenhence the clich`E9 about one bad apple. Thus, sort your fruit carefully and store in a well-ventilated place away from vulnerable foods.

Tomatoes can stay in the ground, covered, through light frosts. But before a big one hits, I pull the whole plant, with tomatoes attached, and hang it upside down near the apples, if available, which will hopefully encourage the tomatoes to turn red. Even if you don't have apples, most of the farmers I know agree that hanging the plants whole is the best method for late-season tomato ripening.

Now go and make some hay, so to speak, while the sun's still shining! •




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