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Root cellaring lets flavors linger longer

STRASBURG, Va. - Janet Heishman spends a great deal of time in a steamy kitchen in midsummer, processing the harvest from her garden. She does it for the economy, the unmatched flavors it provides, a sense of accomplishment and because she feels driven by history.

Among other things, her 220-year-old house has a root cellar that's a natural for storing fresh stocks of vegetables and fruits, cured meats, pickled cucumbers and beets, dry edible herbs and a variety of canned goods.

"Living in a place like this gives you a conscience," said Heishman, a transplanted Texas line cook and baker who now runs a plant nursery from her 15-acre Shenandoah Valley property. "It would be foolish in a way not to do your own canning and storage so you can continue using these kinds of facilities."

Few families build root cellars, fruit cellars or storm cellars - the words are interchangeable - into their homes nowadays. But these below-ground coolers can be enormously useful for people lucky enough to have them. "Root cellaring" is a great way to warehouse a season's supply of canned or garden-fresh fruits and vegetables until they can be eaten.

Properly designed root cellars provide the right combination of temperature, humidity and air circulation to prolong shelf life. Several different sections can be built, each with its own temperature and humidity levels.

Some produce and cured meats like it cold and dark, or around 35 to 40 F. Apples and potatoes, in particular, remain usable for six months or more under those conditions.

Shelf height and location can vary temperature as much as 10 F, from moist, dirt floor to warmer ceiling. Stock the appropriate foods at the appropriate heights.

These low-tech refrigerators can save you time and money and they're much less work than canning, say Mike and Nancy Bubel, in their "Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables" (Storey Publishing).

Root cellars "make it possible for you to enjoy fresh endive in December; tender, savory Chinese cabbage in January; juicy apples in February; crisp fresh carrots in March, and sturdy, unsprayed potatoes in March - all without boiling a jar, blanching a vegetable or filling a freezer bag," they write.

Foods begin to spoil the moment they're picked. The best idea is to accept some of that spoilage while minimizing it.

"The idea in root cellaring is to grow enough, and store enough, so that a few small losses won't matter," the Bubels say. "Don't be surprised or threatened when one of your pumpkins collapses from within or an apple goes leathery with brown rot. Expect some spoilage and work around it."

Despite all the precautions, some of your fruits and vegetables may freeze. That could mean the edible demise of such vegetables as peas, cabbage and lettuce. Fruits often darken and turn mushy unless they're blanched before being frozen. Most fall root crops can handle being frozen, however - things like squash, sweet potatoes, carrots and parsnips.

Arlene Stagg, of Le Sueur, Minn., winters over some of the root vegetables she doesn't immediately can by allowing them to freeze.

"I store my carrots in a refrigerator crisper. They last a long time. Later in the year, I'll put them out in the unheated garage where they'll freeze. I just throw a couple into a roast as I need them."