It distresses me that too many children (and adults) first associate carrots with those baby carrots with ranch dip, served alongside celery: the stereotypical crudite platter. I’ve unhappily eaten watery crudite carrots more than I care to admit, promising myself that a few tasteless, or rubbery, carrots were at least ‘good for me’.
My opinion of carrots changed dramatically as I started eating at more farm-to-table restaurants and shopping at farmers' markets. How could I explain the massive taste differences between carrots? It was like someone holding two entirely different vegetables: In the person’s left hand were the watery, bland, orangey baby vegetables; in the right hand were sweet, sugary carrots, in varying sizes, with a taste akin to candy. I loved the sweet, sugary carrots, but why were the bland vegetables also labeled as carrots? I hated those.
Fresh carrots, in season, and (if you have access) straight from the farmer should consistently taste like sweet treats. There’s no need for ranch dressing to liven these veggies up. And there’s no need for all of the carrots to look the same, or even be the same color. I love rainbow, gnarly, vibrant, and foot-long carrots equally. I’m not in love with all of the gimmicks schools employ to ‘help’ kids eat the watery, mass-produced carrots that they serve. When I was a school counselor conducting lunch groups in my office, these pre-packaged carrots were rarely eaten and always one of the first items chucked into my trashcan. It doesn’t have to be this way!
Thought to have originated in Afghanistan, carrots were originally white, yellow, or violet. In the 1700s the Dutch developed the orange carrots that dominate today’s market.
Carrots are part of the root/tuber family and are prominent in cooking traditions throughout the world. We recently purchased ‘One World Vegetarian’, an entire book of international vegetarian recipes, and my rough guess is that 30-40% of the recipes contain carrots. (Unfortunately, I can’t make many of these recipes until the Spring and Summer when produce like zucchini and bell peppers come back into season!)
The older the carrot, the more sugary it is. The roots have a crunchy texture and a sweet, earthy, and sometimes minty taste. This sweetness translates well into desserts. In fact, right now I’m imagining a thick slice of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and am practically drooling on my keyboard. I love vegetable desserts because I can trick myself into thinking it’s okay to get a second slice. Carrot cheesecake anyone? Outside of desserts, slow-roasting of carrots adds a beautiful caramelized note to any meal.
In the Kitchen:
You can eat carrots raw, in juices or smoothies, in sweets, and as the main or side ingredient in numerous dishes. Carrots caramelize when roasted and pair pleasingly with dill, mint, and a healthy amount of butter.
When choosing carrots, I always search for the most interesting looking ones. I don’t care about uniformity or total smoothness. When you pick up a carrot up, give it a quick sniff—it should smell like a carrot. If you can’t smell anything, try another one. Even when choosing gnarly carrots, however, make sure there are no bruises or shriveled up parts. (This seems like great advice for nearly anything!)
Carrots’ peak season is October through March, though they can be available nearly year round, depending on the farm’s ability to store the root vegetables. Carrots grow best when planted in the early Spring. Midsummer plantings produce tender, sweet carrots. After purchasing carrots, the trick to preserving their freshness is retaining their moisture. Store carrots in the coolest part of your house—and if that doesn’t exist—wrap them in a moist paper towel and store them in the crisper of your refrigerator for a few days.
Stay tuned: In search for an unusual carrot recipe that wasn’t a soup, risotto or bread, I adapted a recipe I had previously cooked by switching out the main ingredient for carrots. How did it turn out?
Sources: WH Foods, The Produce Bible, Local Harvest, About.com, Wikipedia