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Monday, January 24, 2011

The Root Cellar

I have always loved the feeling of rich black soil in my hands. Cool, damp and crumbly, smelling of last years maple leaves and spring rain, it warms my soul. Perhaps it rests in my genetics, (the great granddaughter of Nebraska pioneers) or perhaps it is some crazy hippy-Aquarian trait, but I am always restless in the spring until I can dig my fingers into the earth and reconnect with my garden. 

Twenty five years ago, our little family rented an old farmhouse west of Minneapolis near Cologne, Minnesota from a very successful German dairy farmer named Charlie. He had managed to buy up several adjoining properties and grew his active herd to over 100 cows that he milked twice a day. This area is home to a number of 'century farms', passed down for generations and also of truly black dirt, as deep down as you can dig it. A farmer's dream. 

Fresh greens at The Farm at St. Mathias
The barn on our rental property was a bit run down but all of the machine sheds were in good condition and still functioned as storage for numerous tractors, trucks and an old plow-horse yoke, now forgotten, still hanging and ready for service. A metal windmill standing on the edge of the front yard was once the water source for the property, it's pump mechanics now dismantled. It still lent an occasional long violin-squeak when a breeze blew, a sort of soft music I still find reminiscent of of that place whenever I hear it. 

The house was old but sturdy, a basic two-story Midwestern farmhouse with one fantastic feature; a true root cellar. The house was likely built in the 1920's or 30's and whomever designed it completely understood winter food storage. Covered steps led from the outdoors into the basement of the house directly to the heavy wooden door of the cellar. Most of the floor was open dirt, designed to control humidity with the addition of water as needed, and the rest cool concrete. A low vent from the heated basement let in just enough warmth to keep the room from freezing and another high vent on the opposite side let air flow to the outside. This kept cool, humid air circulating around the room, the perfect environment for storage of root vegetables, winter squash and rows of home canned tomatoes, jams, jellies and salsas. A single light bulb illuminated the room with its hanging pull-chain tinkling against the glass each time the string was pulled. 

Yam, Purple Peruvian, Yukon Gold, Pinks and Russian Fingerlings
When Arlene Jones showed up a few days ago with a bag of potatoes from the root cellar at The Farm at St. Mathias, my first instinct was to smell them. And there it was. I took in another full breath. The smell of earth. Even in January, after months in the cellar, these sleeping beauties - Russian Fingerlings, Yukons, Purple Peruvians and a pink variety I had not seen before, still held the scent of the dirt from which they had been dug. 

The smell of soil in mid winter seems a luxury in northern Minnesota when the garden lays hidden under feet of snow and will not show itself for months to come.

There is great satisfaction for me in preserving and storing food, independent of the local grocer. I think back to that little rented farm; Josh, learning to push a roto-tiller that was as tall as he was, both he and Justin eating peas right off the plants as they 'helped to harvest', and the daily winter ritual of going downstairs to the cellar to see what was for dinner. Preserving is to me, at once, life as it used to be and life as it is still. It is a connection with my great grandparents, who had no grocery store down the street to depend upon and a connection to those who grow the fresh local greens and roasted potatoes that
will become tonights supper from the cellar. Small world.

Mixed Potato “Hash”

This is a fun dish to make when you have access to a number of potato varieties and colors. Each lends it own texture and flavor to the dish. If you wish you can also add other root veggies such as parsnips and carrots. They need no preparation and can go directly into the saute pan with the onion and celery (but may need a little longer cooking).

  • 2 pounds mixed yams, Russian Fingerling and other heirloom variety potatoes, separated by type, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 4 uncured organic bacon slices
  • 3/4 cup rough chopped onion
  • 3/4 cup rough chopped celery
  • 2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp Brown Sugar
  • 1 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Peel Yams. Add potatoes, one variety at a time; cover partially and cook until almost tender, about 10 minutes (or use several pots). Potatoes will cook further in saute pan with remaining ingredients.

Lift potatoes using a strainer, transfer potatoes to a large bowl. Return water in pot to boil, adding more as needed. Add sweet potatoes; cover partially and cook until potatoes still retain their shape and are about ½ cooked, about 5 minutes. Drain. Transfer to bowl with other potato varieties.

Meanwhile, cook bacon over medium heat until almost crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer bacon from pan and drain on paper towels. Rough chop and set aside.

Rough chopped veggies
Pour off all but 3 Tbsp drippings from skillet. Add onion and celery; cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add potatoes and chopped bacon to pan. Cover and cook until potatoes are tender and heated thoroughly.

Add brown sugar and vinegar and cook uncovered until potatoes are coated with glaze, about 2 minutes, tossing carefully as they cook. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Transfer potatoes to serving bowl. Sprinkle with fresh parsley.

Serves 6 as a main dish along with a fresh herbed mixed green salad. This is wonderful as part of a breakfast buffet.

 Ingredient Notes:
  • Boil potato varieties separately as they vary in firmness.
  • 'Rough chop' means to cut randomly and not too small
  • The parsley gives a fragrant note to the dish at the end. I use fresh herbs whenever I can.
  • This can be made as a vegetarian dish by substituting soy bacon and a little olive oil


The Farm at St. Mathias is a CSA - a privately owned community garden. They give free tours, host an annual Celtic Festival and are a leader in the Farm to School program in Northern Minnesota which brings fresh local organic foods to children direct from area farms.

You can also purchase food from the farm (as you would from a farmers market) when you visit even if you are not a subscriber to the CSA program.

I encourage you to take your kids, tour the farm (or one in your area), learn about local organic agriculture and shake the hand of the person who grows your food.

1 comment:

  1. This brings back many memories growning up on a farm in rural Graceville, Minnesota. I remember when my parents retired and built their new home 'in town' they planned for a root cellar in the basement. Wonder how many people do that today?