BY IMKE AHLF-WIEN
Eating locally, even just a small portion of your meals, means getting in sync with the seasons.
As we’re reaching the peak of winter, I am reminded that there are months when fresh produce is harder to find. During winter, opportunities to purchase local produce almost come to a halt. Most area farmers markets have closed, and even at markets that stay open, regular vendors have taken a break and will be back in the spring.
A few farmers markets are still open and have hardy vendors every week. At the Riverdale Park Farmers Market (currently open every Thursday from 3 to 6:30 p.m. at 6220 Rhode Island Avenue, Riverdale Park), Cat’s Paw Organic Farm offers a mix of produce like spinach, Brussels sprouts and green onions from their fields; zucchini and tomatoes from their greenhouse; and potatoes, sweet potatoes and beets from a winter storage unit.
While a December snowfall hit McCleaf’s Orchard, located in southern Pennsylvania, they’re still offering produce, including apples and pears, from their winter storage.
McCleaf’s also has root vegetables and winter squash from their root cellar. Now that phrase sounds almost magical to me! I grew up in Germany in the 1980s, and our home had an area in the basement that was cool, slightly damp and earthy smelling — a perfect place to store potatoes, onions and apples — as well as pickled cucumbers in a large clay jar.
McCleaf’s farmer Brady Griest explained that their old-fashioned root cellar is located underneath the 200-year-old farmhouse that has been in his family for five generations. The root cellar’s stone and rock walls and floors keep conditions damp and cool, and water flows along the floor on rainy days. The root cellar’s ideal conditions don’t call for any additional cooling, keeping costs down.
According to almanac.com, a root cellar “is any storage location that uses the natural cooling, insulating, and humidifying properties of the earth.” For ideal storage, “it should hold a temperature of 32 to 40 F and a humidity level of 85 to 95 percent.”
It’s tough to find root cellars in and around Hyattsville, though. Even the older houses in the Historic District, homes that were built in the mid- to late-1800s, didn’t typically have a room or outbuilding like this.
Fortunately, Gloria Felix-Thompson, president of the Hyattsville Preservation Association, pointed me to the Hitching Post Hill, also known as Ash Hill and Ash Land. The mansion was built in 1740 and sits on a quiet cul-de-sac in the city’s University Hills neighborhood. Its owner, Randy Fletcher, kindly showed me the property, including the spring house, which is now used as a shed. The structure used to house a working well and is naturally cool and damp — those ideal conditions for a root cellar. Seeing it, I could imagine it full of root vegetables in the deep of winter.
Roasted Root Vegetables (serves 4-6)
This colorful side dish combines produce found at the Riverdale Park Farmers Market that can be stored in a root cellar: potatoes, sweet potatoes and beets. You can use whatever root vegetables you have on hand; carrots, parsnips, rutabagas and turnips would all be great together. Cutting the vegetables into pieces that are roughly the same size will allow them to cook at the same rate; I like bite-size chunks.
- 2 medium sweet potatoes
- 2 medium yellow potatoes
- 2 medium beets
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil
- ½ teaspoon sea salt or more to taste
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
Preheat the oven to 425 F and position a shelf in the middle. Peel the vegetables, removing any stems or leaves, and chop into uniform chunks. Place the chopped vegetables in a bowl. Add oil, salt and pepper; mix well. Cover a sheet pan with parchment paper and spread the vegetables in a single layer. Bake for 20 minutes, then sprinkle with thyme and rosemary. Continue to bake until the vegetables are tender and start to caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes.
This column was inspired by the first chapter of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection by Jessica Prentice. I’d also like to thank Gloria Felix-Thompson and members of the Hyattsville Preservation Association for their invaluable help with this article.
Imke Ahlf-Wien is a nutrition educator with a passion for fresh, locally procured foods.