Winter Storage Vegetables

I was gifted squash of all varieties from a friend’s garden and attempted spaghetti squash latkes this week. They turned out to be more of a pancake texture. Pursuing a vague memory of a Japanese savoury pancake I had once, I did a quick google search, and some topping change ups. My “sort of” Latkes became a “sort of” Okonomiyak, making it a pretty delicious turn of events.

I have more squash sitting in a cardboard box in the corner of my front entrance, onions stashed away like a squirrel in my cupboards and jars of canned tomatoes weighing down my lazy susan cupboard. I feel mysteriously wealthy with all this good food around and it got me thinking about who absorbs the cost of stored food we get to shop for at our leisure throughout the winter months.

If you are shopping for Ontario produce in the winter and look at things like potatoes, carrots without the tops, cabbage that has to have the external leaves removed because of damage, you might come to the conclusion that these are low value vegetables. I’d like to paint a different picture.

While spring potatoes may be tender and beautiful and storage potatoes may be dusty and require peeling or a good scrubbing I think they are both equally valuable. Farmers that grow winter storage crops, also have to store those crops which comes at a cost of it’s own that should be reflected in the price of the food. It can be a challenge not to only see value in a visual sense when shopping for food. As the cold winter months roll in and you continue to see Ontario products available at markets and in stores, consider what goes on behind the scenes. There are heating costs, storage space, refrigeration, and labour required to keep that product available and as fresh as possible all winter long. As much as I dream of having a root cellar, it’s pretty amazing to be able to shop throughout the winter for small amounts of produce, and not be required to purchase 50lbs of potatoes every fall.

If you ARE into stocking up in the fall, or have grown some of your own storage crops, I’ve been excited with the results of my own at home trials of food storage. For the past few years I’ve been able to store squash, onions, and garlic in my regular room temperature pantries, coat closets and any dark semi cool corners I can find. The stores have only every really lasted me until January, so my study has consistently ended about there. That being said thought, if your farmers are heading out for the season don’t be afraid to stock up on some of these more stable items if you have the space and desire!

Toasted Squash Seeds

I was thinking of re-inventing myself and the name associated with this blog. Over the past weeks I have attempted to cook pigs feet (and failed, but I will try again), rendered normally thrown out animal fat, used bruised fruit for baking, made broth from chicken feet and now have saved squash seeds from the compost, creating a deliciously crunchy snack. The challenge of finding ways to get the most out the food I bring home is a what keeps my freak flag flying in the kitchen and is the original inspiration for this platform. “Practically Empty Pantry” sums up my experience in the kitchen, our experience as local eaters in Ontario where options of local food are limited, and will remain the title of this blog.

Saving squash seeds to toast and top my soup with is an added luxury I have because of time, curiosity of the supposedly inedible, and a drive to make use of every bit of food I have purchased.

Curiosity is the key component to most of my experiments, and has led me down multiple rabbit holes of age old recipes that praise all the funky bits of food we now throw out. Every year at Halloween, families all over Canada carve out pumpkins, save the seeds, toast them with spices and munch on the. Every year, families all over Canada also cook squash for dinner and throw out the seeds. Pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, or whatever, are all from the same family. So why can’t we toast and eat the seeds of all the squash types? I took this question to the test with a mystery squash gifted to me from a friend’s garden and it was DELICIOUS!

Toasted Winter Squash Seeds:

  1. Rinse seeds, pulling off any excess squash goop to the best of your ability
  2. Leave in colander overnight to dry out a bit (if you skip this step, they will just take a bit longer in the oven, and the oil might not stick as well)
  3. Toss in oil and season with salt, spices of your choice
  4. Bake at 300 until nice and toasted (about 30 minutes)
  5. If the squash seeds are larger, they may need more time to dehydrate. If they are brown but still watery on the inside when you bite them, drop the oven temp to 200 and leave in for another 10 minutes.

How to Render Lard

The first time I decided I was going to render lard was a few years ago. As per my usual chaotic fashion, I overcommitted and purchased 20lbs of back fat. I simmered it for two days in multiple crockpots and then I got the “shivs.” My friend Shayna taught me the word “shivs.” I’ve yet to meet another word to describe the feeling so accurately. It’s an internal shudder that often occurs when you’ve had too much of one thing.

I guess back fat of a pig wasn’t the place to start. It has a meatier odour that overwhelmed my senses for a full 48 hours, causing reactions such as the “shivs.” While the lard I did get from melting it down was useful, I didn’t want to do it again. Back fat is best cured, smoked and eaten in savoury settings, especially delicious with some crusty sourdough bread, fresh veg or tart fermented pickles. I’ve learned a few things since then.

Leaf lard is from the internal fat of a pig. This once highly sought after fat has been used in cooking and baking for a long time. Shortening is what most people use now when they want to replicate a traditionally lard based recipe, such as biscuits or pastry. Shortening is hydrogenated oil, mostly palm oil and can be found quite easily. Lard has lost popularity and is harder to find which is why I’ve taken matters into my own hands. This time, I used leaf fat, not back fat, from a farmer who prioritizes happy pigs, a healthy planet and good food.

People often have questions about the nutrition factors in food, especially surrounding the controversial ingredient of fat. There are a million and one studies proving whatever diet you choose to believe is the best one. I am not a trained nutritionist and tend to avoid speaking about the subject if I can. For me, eating real food, that can be sourced with the lowest impact on the planet is my first step. From there I follow nutritionists that I’ve chosen to listen to and have found a way of eating that makes me feel good for my body and my lifestyle. Lard that is sourced from healthy happy pigs feels like a good option to add to my list of locally sourced fats and cooking oils.

So far, my future is looking rather delicious and “shiv” free. Pastry making, deep frying, cooking my eggs, and pretty much anything else you want a mild cooking oil for will be the primary use for my rendered lard. Some people also use it make soap in a traditional method. If you want to get on the lard train, talk to your local butcher or your favourite farmer. I’m sure they will hook you up with the under-appreciated and sadly, often thrown out fat.

Steps to Rendering Lard:

  1. Chop or grind leaf fat into small pieces. 
  2. Simmer on low in a crock pot/roasting pan in oven/shallow pan on stove
  3. Depending on the size of container, this can take anywhere from one hour to all day
  4. Strain out crispy bits of fat as soon as they start to brown, you don’t want them to brown any further or your lard will have stronger flavour
  5. Strain lard through a fine mesh sieve, cheesecloth or something similar
  6. Put in a container and let cool. 
  7. Keep in fridge for a few months or stick in freezer to keep longer
  8. Melt in pan for cooking or use firm and cold for pastry

Local Fruit in Ontario

Where does your fruit come from? “Local” fruit is a tricky question in Ontario (ON). Many of our soft tree fruits can only thrive in very specific regions of ON making sourcing fruit challenging. The season is short, and all the creatures of the natural world love fruit as much as us humans, making pest management a serious task. Harvesting fruit is also very tedious labour requiring speed and delicacy, often done by migrant workers.  
If you are looking to source organic fruit, the options are even fewer. According to OMAFRA due to specific programming, many growers have been able to reduce their pesticide use dramatically. You may encounter fruit growers who say they are “transitioning” to Organic, meaning that they are adopting or taken on certain practices in order to reduce their need for chemical assistance, however it is still difficult to find certified organic fruit in ON. When talking to your farmer, know that there are certified organic “sprays” that can be used to mitigate pest and disease pressure, so asking if something is “spray free” does not necessarily make sense from an agriculture viewpoint. Asking a grower about their farm and growing practices in general will allow for more open conversation.  
Farmers’ Markets that prioritize local vendors often run into the challenge of not being able to have fruit at the markets. Fruit vendors do not want to travel to markets far outside of their growing region. In order for markets to be able to sell seasonal ON fruit, many make the exception (if they do not normally allow reselling) to permit their vendors to resell tree fruit that they have picked up from fruit growing regions.
Seasonal fruit is so highly coveted that grocery stores, both large and small scale, make the effort to source ON fruit during the growing seasons.  As with all produce for sale, it must be labelled, showing where the fruit has been grown. 
Roadside stands throughout ON will also pop up during growing seasons. Stands may be a collection of farms and their products. All items at these stands must be labelled with their origin.

My freezer has been filling up quickly this season and I’m feeling grateful for the abundance of goodness that will feed me throughout the winter months. Apples, pears and grapes are now in season and next on my list of goodies to indulge on!