Keeping Fruits and Veggies Fresh

A little knowledge can save you money and extend the window of opportunity to eat those vegetables you enjoy. For short-term storage, certain vegetables are rather "picky" about how and where they prefer to be kept. Here are some handy tips to help you daily.

Tomatoes thrive on your counter, preferably in a colander or sieve that allows air to get to them. They do not like to be stored in the refrigerator—although left-over cut tomatoes must be stored covered in the fridge. If you have green tomatoes that you’re trying to ripen, place them in a brown paper bag and keep it closed.

Fresh corn in its husks and peas and lima beans in their pods last best uncovered in the refrigerator.

Those veggies that are happiest in the refrigerator crisper drawer or covered in the refrigerator include asparagus, snap or wax beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celery, husked corn, cucumbers, leafy greens, leeks and scallions, parsnips, shelled peas and beans, green peppers, radishes, summer squash, and unwaxed turnips. These should keep seven days or longer in a crisper or a closed plastic bag in the fridge.

Certain vegetables will keep for several months in a cool room away from bright light. These include potatoes, mature onions, sweet potatoes, winter squash and waxed turnips or rutabagas.

Cellars under houses without central heating have long been used successfully for winter storage of fruits and vegetables. Usually these cellars have outside openings, and it will be best if they have insulated ceilings to keep the cold air from chilling the rooms above them. Some such cellars have no windows, but if there is one it can be helpful in regulating the temperature. Cover the window to minimize the light. Don’t forget to close the window if temperatures are predicted to dip well below freezing.

A root cellar is ideal for root vegetables but if you are unable to have one and you live in a cool climate you can construct an efficient root cellar in which to preserve your root vegetables throughout the winter (or most of it). If your home has central heat and a basement, the area you choose for your root cellar should have at least one window for ventilation and temperature control, and should be partitioned off from the heated portion of the basement with insulated walls, and preferably in the northern and eastern end of the basement. Shade your window in such a way that air can be let in but not light, as light will speed the oxidation and decay of your food. Light will turn potatoes green and bitter. Equip your storage room with wooden pallets to keep food off the floor and with shelves and wooden slatted boxes that allow air circulation to hold small items such as potatoes, apples, sweet potatoes, parsnips, etc. If you plan to store both fruits and vegetables, your room should be divided. Apples give off methane gas as they ripen and can cause other items to spoil more quickly, so you don’t want them influencing your potatoes. Check your apples and potatoes especially often and remove any bad ones. (There’s a reason for the old saying about one bad apple spoiling a bushel!)

The best apples for winter storage include McIntosh, Cortland, Red Delicious and Rome Beauty, although there are probably some newer varieties that also store well. Apples must be stored away from potatoes and onions. Do not try to store windfall apples, as they will be bruised and spoil readily. Apples like to be cold, and store best at temperatures near (but not quite) freezing. It’s best to wrap each apple in a piece of newsprint or tissue paper, and store them in shallow layers, as they are heavy enough that the combined weight can bruise and spoil the apples on the bottom. Two or three layers is ideal. If your apples begin to be mealy (dry and somewhat crumbly or coarse in texture, with little flavor), make applesauce with them. One delicious sauce is “Baked Apple Sauce,” so called because you leave the peel on the apple, giving it the flavor of baked apples. Wash and core apples but do not peel. Cut into small chunks and place them in a heavy saucepan with sugar and cinnamon to taste and a little water and allow them to cook slowly until apples are tender. Stir often and watch that they do not scorch. Add a little more water if they become too dry before they are the desired tenderness. The resulting product can then be frozen or canned in jars in a boiling water bath. If you don’t care for "chunky" sauce, you can run it all through a food mill before preserving.

Potatoes should be picked over carefully before storage, eliminating any that are immature, damaged, or which show signs of blight (cellular infection, brownish rot from the skin into the center of the potato). Potatoes prefer things a bit warmer than apples. Even 50 degrees is not too warm. Their storage space must be dark. Potatoes need to be stored in baskets or boxes with a layer of clean, dry straw between each layer. In optimum conditions potatoes can last up to six months before they begin to develop "eyes" and want to grow—by which time you can plant them for next year’s crop. Do not store potatoes and onions too close together; although they blend wonderfully in cooking, they are a bad influence on each other in storage, as each produces gases that can spoil the other. Some good varieties of potatoes to store are Kennebec, Green Mountain and Russet Burbank. Do not rinse or wash before storing.

Carrots should be thick and as near perfect as possible to store well. Thin ones dry out too readily. Don’t wash them; just cut off the green tops and brush off as much of the dirt as you can, then layer them in sand—about two inches of sand between each layer. Put in one layer of sand, mist with water and add a layer of carrots, more sand, and then mist again. As you use up your carrots, re-mist the sand if it has dried out. If your carrots begin to dry out, remove them all and can them. Carrots like it on the cold side, and can be stored close to apples. In areas with less-than-severe winters, carrots can "winter over" right where they grow. Mulch deeply to keep the ground from freezing too solid and dig up carrots as needed. This can work for parsnips as well, but if it’s too inconvenient to go outside and dig for them, you may prefer to store them indoors. Beets can also be stored like carrots, but don’t last quite as long. Carrots, in optimum storage condition, will keep well for four to five months.

Winter squash such as Hubbard, banana, butternut and acorn, are all good choices for cold storage. Pumpkins and gourds can also be stored along with squash, as they are all cousins. Choose mature squash with tough outer skin (you should not be able to pierce the outer skin with a fingernail). Squashes like to be stored like potatoes, except sitting stored separately on a shelf, preferably on a bed of straw, rather than piled up in a box. They like dry surroundings and a temperature of about 50 degrees. If you wipe off the shells with a ten-to-one water/bleach solution, they will not mold during storage. Squash will keep about six months. Once you have cut open a large squash, cook all of it, and then pack the part you didn’t use into freezer containers. It will keep well frozen. Just thaw, warm, add seasonings, and you have a lovely side dish. Mash with a little salt, brown sugar and butter for a delectable alternative to sweet potatoes.

Do the best you can to keep mice out of your cold storage area, but don’t be totally shocked if one day you pick up a pumpkin and find it hollowed out with a family of mice living inside, the pumpkin providing them both food and shelter!

Onions, cabbage, garlic, winter pears, cabbage, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas can all be stored for several months. To get the best information for your area, contact your local county extension service. Also, storage pits and other outdoor storage places can be constructed in some areas where the weather permits. Excellent advice and plans for more sophisticated root cellars are available from Putting Food By, by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughan, and in Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel. See also "Building a Root Cellar" at www.organicgardening.com and "How to Build a Root Cellar for Food Storage" at www.motherearthnews.com.
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