The chill of winter can hit the committed locavore like a slushball in the neck. The outdoor farmers' markets have ended. The grocery store features peppers from Mexico or Israel. The specter of four months of leek soup looms, and it threatens the determined farm-to-table chef.
Chef Michael Pruett at Steenbock's on Orchard hews to his locavore commitments. "I stopped putting greens on my menu for the dining room," Pruett says of his winter plans. "I try to do different things with appetizers that avoid vegetables. I emphasize proteins."
Pruett focuses on meats and cheeses, cans tomatoes from By George Farm, his principal local vegetable source, and pickles cucumbers and peppers. He'll also order overwintered vegetables (vegetables kept alive through the colder months) from By George's Jonathan Steiger and Tyson Fehrman, and may order onions and celery through a Chicago vendor for stocks to bolster his menu options.
Devout locavores face fewer options at markets. A few greens can be found at the indoor winter farmers' market - chard, kale, micro-greens, spinach - but little else save mushrooms, squash and root vegetables.
Short of building a greenhouse, the best way to avoid continuous grocery runs for items of distant provenance is to store winter vegetables. Root vegetables like carrots, beets, celeriac, rutabaga, kohlrabi, potatoes and sweet potatoes can be stored through the winter, as can winter squash and delicatas if it's done properly.
If you don't talk with your producer directly about how to store things, there are numerous options for storage advice from university agriculture departments online. While such sources will give specific temperatures and humidity levels for vegetable varieties, a low-tech approach can be effective.
"The old-fashioned approach works well," says Steiger. "A root cellar is one of the best ways to keep things." Cold, but not frozen, storage spaces that remain dark are key. "You want it to have a pretty regular temperature," explains Steiger. "You want it dark. You want air movement around vegetables."
That said, Steiger expects to supply clients - the Madison Club, Merchant and Steenbock's - throughout the winter from vegetables stored in a cooler held at 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Few of us enjoy our own walk-in coolers, and even in some basements, a constant temperature of 36 may be out of reach. Here are some simple suggestions for the rest of us, drawn from various sources.
- Clean and sort. The prettier the piece, the better. Pick through the vegetables and fruit and remove any that show signs of rot, damage or disease. Bacteria from such sites can travel between pieces. Wash everything except potatoes. If you have less-than-ideal storage options but you have space, arrange items like cookies on a baking sheet so they don't touch.
- Curing. Improve storability by curing some vegetables (space heaters can be used for the elevated temps needed for curing). Cure potatoes at 45 to 60 degrees in the dark for two weeks. Cure squash (except for acorn) at a temperature of up to 85 degrees for 10 days. Cure onions and garlic in a dry, well-ventilated spot for a couple weeks to dry out the tops.
- Storage temperature. Store root vegetables at temperatures at 33 to 45 degrees with high relative humidity (some suggest packing them in damp sand). If potatoes sprout, they're too warm. Remove the sprouts and store in a cooler spot. Keep apples as close to freezing as possible. Keep squash and pumpkins, however, in the 50- to 60-degree range at low humidity.
- Grouping fruits and vegetables. Keep apples separate; they emit ethylene, which affects other fruits and vegetables. Cabbage, turnips, celery and related items also emit ethylene and can lend an unpleasant odor to other vegetables.