Ah, fall. The season of the first scarlet leaves and the first scarlet flushes of sheepish regret: Why didn’t I plan elaborate activities to take advantage of every sunshine-soaked weekend? Why didn’t I eat outside every single weekend? Why did I keep working my job, keep sleeping between the same four walls, keep shopping in grocery stores when I could’ve been enjoying summer?
Now Halloween looms on the horizon, threatening to bowl us over like that rumbling boulder in the opening scene of that Indiana Jones movie. How can I get out of its way at the last second? How can I evade the terrifying rolling stone of oncoming winter?
I know: I could buy a rutabaga! A parsnip. Some beets.
True, summer is fading, but it’s not too late to start shopping at the farmers’ market, and the fall storage crops available now still give regretful cooks a chance to grab summer’s last-gasp bounty.
Let’s start by getting some lingo down. What are storage crops?
Once upon a time, there were no refrigerators — and certainly no refrigerated airplanes delivering strawberries from Peru to Maine. And people dealt with this by arranging everything about their gardens and farms accordingly. They planted long-storing grains like oats and barley. (Ask me sometime about the British Isles around a.d. 1000, when people ate oatmeal twice a day. I will go on at length.)
These wise people counted on invisible microbes to turn fresh cream into cultured butter, making it available long after the cows shut down. (Dairy animals make milk for their newborns, and don’t make milk when they’re pregnant, so typically they’d have a fallow period in the darkest time of the year.)
They dried fish, in case the seas or other waterways froze, or if winter storms made it too hazardous to go out to fish.
They put up wine, beer and sauerkraut as a very good way to get shelf-stable calories and phytonutrients in winter.
They dried beans — and not just beans, but lentils and split peas, too.
And they devoted a whole section of their gardens to root-cellar vegetables, which are vegetables that can sit on a cool, dark shelf for a couple of months with no ill effect.
A root cellar was essentially any place underground and out of the sunlight that stayed at 35 to 60 degrees all year with good enough air flow to prevent moldering.
Back when root cellars were popular, root crops (like beets, carrots and parsnips) and many cellar-friendly fruits (like apples and pumpkins) were cultivated for their storage qualities. An apple orchard, for instance, would offer early-ripening apples, cider apples and keeping apples — all sorts of apples to reflect people’s various needs.
Even today, when airplanes regularly deliver South American spring asparagus, these storage crops of yore appear in farmers’ markets in the fall, and they are all worth eating. Better yet, they’re worth roasting — the easiest of all conceivable cooking techniques.
To roast root-cellar vegetables, you need an oven and an oven-safe pan. A cast-iron skillet works well, as does a Dutch oven, a glass lasagna pan or a cookie sheet. Just make sure that whatever you’re using won’t collapse under the weight of whatever you’re roasting. (You don’t want to use a bit of tinfoil to support a pumpkin, for example.)
The best temperature for roasting is a matter of some debate. I like 400 degrees; it’s hot and gets a good sear on the outside.
The legendary cookbook author Barbara Kafka advises roasting at 500 degrees, if you can stand it. The oven may smoke, burning off any little bits of oil or such that have spattered onto the walls from past uses, but Kafka argues that the exterior char on the vegetables is worth it.
I can’t stand the smoke in the kitchen, which is why I stick with 400 degrees. But if you are braver, or have less-sensitive smoke alarms, go for it.
But first, to prepare your root-cellar bounty for the oven, you’ll need just two basic ingredients: fat and salt.
Your body requires a little fat to digest vegetables’ fat-soluble vitamins, so toss your vegetables with a bit of olive oil, canola oil, duck fat, bacon drippings — whatever you have. You basically want a thin film of oil on the exterior of any cut side, and any thin vegetable, to prevent rapid moisture loss, and also to prevent the vegetable from sticking to the pan.
From there, just add a sprinkle of salt. I like a big-flake sea salt, like Maldon, because the snowflake-like crystals allow me to see the salt without making the vegetables too salty.
Once you’ve got your root-cellar veggies prepared, and your oven heated to at least 400 degrees, you can throw those babies in and cook until tender.
What to roast? Almost anything:
- Parsnips were once as popular as carrots, and when you roast a tray-full you’ll learn why: They’re sweet and nutty, with a little hint of anise in
- the background.
- Turnips have a little vegetal metallic quality that makes spices such as cardamom pop in a unique way.
- It almost goes without saying that potatoes — skin on or skin off — are very nice when oven roasted. Keep the skin on and you’ll get a nice boost of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, copper and iron.
- Cut sweet potatoes into chunks, French-fry sticks or thin coins.
- All hard squashes — acorn, hubbard, kabocha — are more or less interchangeable. You either cut ’em in half, remove seeds, roast open-side down till tender and then flip till caramelized, or you cut them in half, remove the seeds, then slice off the hard outside and cut into uniform chunks. Either way, a basement root cellar full of squash will get you through winter in good shape.
- Many pumpkins can be oven roasted just like their squash cousins. A small “pie” pumpkin will give you both a handful of yummy seeds and the opportunity to slice it into thin crescents to oven roast.
- I like to wash beets, leave them skin-on, slick with oil, and then bundle into a foil pack. They can then be roasted at a lower temperature, say 350, for an hour or two (or four; they’re forgiving). Let them cool in the pack. Then, slick your own hands with olive oil to prevent the red color of the beets from sticking. Squeeze the beets to slip them out of their jackets, and enjoy.
- You can oven roast a whole cabbage head, left on the core, and cut it into wedges, like a head of iceberg lettuce.
- Onions, cut into rings, or even cut haphazardly, turn golden and dark in the oven, giving you all the flavor of a basket of onion rings, in prettier guise.
Does it sound too easy? Well, that’s what’s great about fall storage crops: They’re the lazy person’s way to eat more veggies, enjoy them thoroughly — and reclaim a bit of summer in the process. The early bird may get the worm (or when it comes to farmers’ markets, the first spindly asparagus), but the late-fall farmers’-market shopper gets everything she has room to store.