Monday January 20, 2014 | 10:22 AM

At the Portland indoor winter farmer’s’ market  this past Saturday  I randomly surveyed the farmers on how they store their crops that they bring to market. I was surprised how few use old-fashioned root cellars but rely instead on controlled refrigeration or walk-in coolers. According to most, the optimal temperature for the roots and other crops is 33 degrees with enough moisture so that the vegetables don’t dry out.

Freshly dug  winter carrots from Buckwheat Blossom Farm

Another method is to keep these crops in farm-house basements with fans circulating the air and even adding a touch of heat as Jan Goranson of Goranson Farm does in addition to standard refrigeration.

Old-fashioned root cellars are probably best for general home storage, but Maine farmers who participate in all the winter markets around the state have huge quantities of potatoes, onions, carrots and other roots that they need to keep well stored and salable. 

At Freedom Farm, the cold-weather-bruised outer leaves are removed to reveal these glistening red cabbages

Those that cultivate those crisp greens like spinach and salad mix do so in greenhouses or hoop houses, where solar heat keeps the crops at the right temperature. Maine winter spinach, for instance, is as good as California-grown greens. It’s nice to know that we have such high quality greens and produce here year-round when farming used to shut down after the first frost.

But there are some farmers like those at  Buckwheat Blossom  who are still digging roots out of the ground that emerge reasonably fresh, sweet and tasty.  The snow cover acts as insulation like Mother Nature’s natural cover crop. 

Buckwheat had fresh dug carrots, leeks and parsnips, which I bought and cooked with later.  The carrots still retained sweetness and were not developing woody centers as carrots eventually do after long months of cold storage.  The parsnips were bright and crisp, but once I cut them open I could see signs of deterioration from frostbite.  When you buy storage roots inspect them and just cut away the tough cores and use the rest.

There's plenty of life left to these sweet winter leeks and carrots

The leeks, too, fared pretty well, though they weren’t picture-perfect with bright green stalks typical of a spring and summer harvest. 

But the flavor intensifies as it remains under ground, even if they get a little nip here and there from this winter’s tundra-like temperatures.

There were plenty of shoppers at the market this past Saturday

Beets do well in cold storage, too, and you see plenty of them around as you do kohlrabi, which are enormous this time of year. 

Olivia's Garden has introduced the Tomimaru Muchoo tomato, which they grow in soil on vines in the greenhouse--as good-tasting as any August tomato

Spinach from The Good Shepherd Farm in Bremen

Potatoes are slightly more fragile and can get spud growth on the outside.  This doesn’t necessarily affect the potato, just cut the ears away.  It’s also good to cut them open before using  to check on imperfections inside. 

Freedom Farm's harvest of dried beans includes the  noteworthy  Marfax beans, which are the bean of choice in Aroostock County for baked bean casseroles

But by March, these roots, no matter who well they’re stored, are getting tired.   Also, by early spring you’re not going to see many more of these vegetables around at farmer’s markets.  Items like colored carrots are nearly gone by then; but spring roots are not far behind, and the cycle starts all over again.

All of those root vegetables didn't go to waste at my house where I served this puree of root vegetables with honeyed walnuts, creme fraiche and fennel fronds as a first course at dinner

Here are some other delights fresh out of the oven  at the Saturday market.

Besides Bomb Diggity's signature stash of English muffins their baked goods sold out quickly at the market

Fresh out of the oven, Maine Pie Line's intense take on mac and cheese with bacon and truffles

Swallotail Farm's fermentory of vinegars, salves, tinctures and other put-up products




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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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