Costly Sun Belt produce makes us return to our root cellars


February 20, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

Once upon a time we turned our backs on the carrot.

When refrigerated planes, trains and trucks started bringing us tomatoes in January and sweet peppers in February, all carried in from far off lands, we said, 'Who needs rutabagas?' or words to that effect.

The carrot, the rutabaga, the cabbage, the spud -- all those long-suffering, long-storing vegetables that got our ancestors through the cold winter months, have taken a real dive in status in the last 40 years. When jicamas and cantaloupe and jalapenos beckon, who wants to chew on turnips instead?

But this year, when hard freezes have hit the Sun Belt and turned buying melons and avocados into transactions that require a co-signer, it just might be time to rethink the hardy winter vegetables.

There're an amazing variety of vegetables classified as winter crops. There are the true storage vegetables, those that are picked in autumn and stored away -- winter squash, pumpkin, beets, carrots, celeriac, onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, salsify, scorzonera, burdock root, dried peas and beans, turnips and rutabagas. And then there are those that grow at cooler temperatures and can withstand some frosts -- cauliflower, kale, collards, radishes, broccoli, celery, spinach, radicchio, mustard, chicory, bok choy, Swiss chard and other winter greens.

There's an adage that everything tastes better in its season and it applies to winter, too. We don't have to go far to find some tempting ways to prepare them. Many of the traditional peasant dishes -- with their rich, deeply satisfying flavors

are based on winter vegetables. Think of spanakopita, bagna cauda, tempura, spinach roulade, winter squash and pumpkin pies, potato gratins, borscht, minestrone, caldo verde and dal curries. All kinds of soups and stews, casseroles and savory pies are based on winter vegetables.

Because they complement each other in flavor, you can cook up some mixtures of winter vegetables without recipes. Cut up equal-sized chunks of potatoes, onion, turnip and carrot directly into a casserole dish that has a cover. Toss them just to coat with a light vegetable oil (about 2 tablespoons), liberal sprinklings of dried herbs (Italian blends or a mixture of savory, oregano and basil are good) plus salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour or until carrots are done.

Winter vegetables mix well in all kinds of stir-fries. Add chopped scallions, dark sesame oil and grated ginger for flavor. Fill a steamer with a variety of winter vegetables, adding the hardest ones like carrots and potatoes first and the softest greens last. Serve with a savory sauce or warm up a special salad dressing.

Some, like celeriac and beets, are strong in flavor and tasty when prepared individually. Raw celeriac can be julienned (hold in acidulated water -- lemon juice in water -- to keep from turning brown) and tossed with a flavorful dressing. Let it marinate for an hour or two before serving. A few leftover scraps of celeriac can be used in vegetable soup. Add sliced celeriac (again, don't forget the acidulated water) to a potato gratin.

Most winter vegetables keep best at refrigerator temperatures -- 32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit -- but not all.

We often keep our potatoes, onions and winter squashes near at hand in the kitchen -- at room temperature, of course -- but this might not be the best way to store them. Instead keep them in a pantry, an enclosed but unheated porch, or even the basement -- any place where the temperature stays 50 to 60 degrees.

Squash will actually deteriorate rapidly if the temperature is below 50 degrees. They like best a range of 50 to 55 degrees in a place that's dry like a pantry or cool sun porch. Some basements may be too humid. For onions, 40 to 50 degrees is ideal and like squash, they don't do well in humid conditions.

Potatoes can stand temperatures a little cooler, 45 to 50 degrees, but if they're put in a refrigerator their starches will turn to sugars and they'll have an oddly sweet taste. A week at room temperatures will reverse this process and make your potatoes taste like potatoes again. Store potatoes away from the light. When potatoes are exposed to sunlight, they start to produce a toxic alkaloid called solanine. You can tell this has happened because the potatoes turn a greenish color just under the skin. Heating inactives this compound but peeling it away is best. When buying, avoid any potatoes with this greenish color.

Sweet potatoes keep best at 55 to 58 degrees with a high humidity but good ventilation.

Here are some recipes from "Winter Harvest Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, paperback, $14.95) by Lane Morgan:

Italian spinach and rice pie

Serves five as a main dish or eight as a side dish.

3 1/2 cups chicken broth

2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach or 3 pounds fresh

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup pancetta or blanched bacon, chopped

1/4 cup chopped onion

1 large clove garlic, chopped

1 cup rice, preferably Arborio or other short-grained variety

2 tablespoons butter

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