“But some of us are beginning to pull well away, in our irritation, from … the exquisite tasters, the vintage snobs, the three-star Michelin gourmets. There is, we feel, a decent area somewhere between boiled carrots and beluga caviar, sour plonk and Chateau Lafite, where we can take care of our gullets and bellies without worshipping them.” — J.B. Priestly (1894-1984)
Carrots are found in every supermarket produce section and most everywhere else vegetables are sold. They are the second most popular vegetable in the United States, next to potatoes. They are available year-round and can be purchased for 99 cents per pound or less. Even the certified organic carrots are only $1.49 a pound. They can be eaten raw or cooked and, either way, they are very good for you. They contain more beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, than any other vegetable. They are a great source of vitamins B and C and the fiber pectin. They also contain falcarinol, a compound that reduces the risk of cancer.
And yet, carrots are not something that people get very excited about. We think of them either as something for “health food nuts” or as just a boring vegetable for people who just don’t care. In reality, their natural sweet flavor, firm texture and attractive color give something very special for a chef to work with.
Carrots have been around in their wild form for centuries, but the domesticated variety that we eat today began in present-day Afghanistan about the year 700. These early carrots were purple or yellow in color and had a more bitter taste than today’s varieties. It was the Dutch, during the 17th century, who perfected the sweet orange carrot. We are now showing interest in yellow carrots, red carrots, purple carrots, white and black carrots. These varieties are not really new, they just capture some of the ancient past.
All carrots are not the same. Being a root vegetable, the best carrots come from the best soil, which would be in organic fields that have been properly rotated to retain their nutrients. Also, the best carrots are sold with the tops on, guaranteeing freshness. Those packages labeled “Baby Carrots” and cut into perfect cylinders are not baby carrots at all. The actual label reads “baby-cut carrots,” meaning they have been mechanically cut from mature carrots, dipped in a chlorine solution and packaged. There are real baby carrots that are sold with the tops on and have a delicate, delicious flavor. Here are a few recipes that might help you get excited about carrots again.
Cut off the leaves and stems of 2 bunches of fresh carrots, leaving about a half-inch of stem on each carrot. Peel the carrots and place them, whole, into a shallow baking casserole.
Combine 1/4 cup canola oil, the zest and juice of 2 oranges, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes in a small bowl. Pour this mixture over the carrots and bring to a boil on the stove.
Remove from heat, cover with foil and place in a 250-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove the foil, add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill and continue cooking in the oven at 300 degrees until most of the liquid evaporates, about 45 minutes. Serve as is or over cooked, dried lima beans.
Moroccan Carrot and Orange Salad
Grate 1 pound of peeled carrots into a bowl, using the large holes of a box grater. Peel and section 2 navel oranges, removing all pulp. Cut orange sections into bite-sized pieces. Add to grated carrots.
Make a dressing by combining 1/4 cup olive oil with 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/2 cup orange juice, 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1/4 cup honey, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Vigorously shake this mixture in a jar and pour over the carrots and oranges. Fold in 1/4 cup chopped cilantro and serve over baby arugula.
Roasted Carrot and Celery Root Soup
Peel 1 pound of carrots and cut into 2-inch chunks. Peel and trim 1 head of celery root and cut into 2-inch chunks. Toss vegetables in a bowl with 1 tablespoon canola oil and 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Place on a sheet pan and roast at 425 degrees for about 25 minutes, when they should be turning brown. Remove and set aside.
Bring 4 cups vegetable stock and 1 cup water to a boil in a soup pot and add 1 peeled piece of ginger (about 1 inch) and 3 sprigs of fresh thyme. Simmer this stock for 30 minutes, then remove ginger and thyme.
In a separate soup pot, add 2 tablespoons canola oil along with 1 chopped leek (white part), 1 chopped onion and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Cook briefly over medium heat and add the roasted carrots and celery root. Add the stock to the vegetable mixture. Simmer for 20 minutes and puree in a food processor. Check for seasoning and serve with a garnish of sour cream.
Peel and grate 1 1/2 pounds of carrots into a large bowl. Stir in 1 cup brown sugar and set aside. Peel and slice a wedge of fresh pineapple. Dice into quarter-inch pieces to make about 1 1/2 cups. (Reserve remaining pineapple for another use.) Dice 1 cup dried apricots and place in a small bowl with 1/4 cup brandy.
Spray two 10-inch cake pans with no-stick.
In a bowl, combine 3 cups flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 tablespoon cinnamon and 1 teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, beat 4 eggs with a whisk until frothy. Whisk in 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 cup canola oil and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Slowly stir in the flour mixture to form a batter. Stir in the chopped pineapple and apricots along with their juices. Stir in 1 cup chopped walnuts and fold into the carrot mixture. Make sure all is well combined before pouring into the cake pans.
Cook in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick (it should come out clean) and remove to a cooling rack. After 10 minutes, cut around the edges with a knife and turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
Meanwhile, make a cream cheese frosting by placing 8 ounces cream cheese and 5 tablespoons butter into an electric mixer. Mix with a paddle at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add 1 tablespoon sour cream at low speed along with 1 teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt. Turn up the speed to medium and add 1 cup confectioner’s sugar. Set aside until cake cools.
Place one cake layer on a cake serving stand and frost the top. Place the other layer on top and frost it on the top only. Chill before serving.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].