Is there a more useful vegetable than the carrot?
Useful, and ubiquitous, especially at this time of year. At Oliver’s and Whole Foods, you can find fresh, slender bunches of organic carrots with their tops on. If you can, always buy carrots with their tops attached. Make sure the tops are fresh-looking and bright green. This insures that they have been pulled very recently and will still show some of that breathy, rich, carrot-y quality that makes them such a treat.
Why organic? Because much of the flavor in a carrot root is concentrated in the skin, and organic carrots only need washing, not peeling.
Avoid any carrots that show little white roots emerging along their length — they’re really old. Also, avoid any that show black moldy material around the stubs of the tops where they were removed. And for sure, avoid those stubby little cylinders sold as “baby carrots” in plastic bags. They have been cut and ground from large older carrots and have lost most of their flavor.
You can also find multi-colored carrots in our stores now, often with their tops still on. They come in colors like maroon, purple, red, white and yellow, as well as orange.
While we tend to think of orange as the basic carrot color, our modern vegetable originated in the purple-rooted wild carrot of Afghanistan. In ancient times, it followed the Old Silk Road east to China and west to the Roman Empire.
In those days, the roots were small and uninteresting. Romans used carrots for their aromatic tops, the way we use parsley and chervil today.
It was the Dutch in the 17th century who bred the modern carrot, with its large taproot that’s so useful.
Carrots can be boiled, broiled, steamed, sautéed and roasted. Roasting helps turn some of their starch to sugar, and sweetens them. That sugar can also be partially caramelized during roasting, further intensifying carrots’ flavor.
Carrots are a key ingredient in mirepoix, along with celery and onions; parsley, thyme and garlic are sometimes added, too. These aromatic vegetables are diced, then slowly cooked over low heat with butter or oil.
Long cooking softens them and their flavors mingle, but they’re not allowed to brown. Mirepoix is used to give a rich background flavor to many French dishes, especially soups and stews.
I use grated carrots in lots of ways besides soups and stews, because the grated flakes almost disappear as they cook, adding texture and sweetness to spaghetti sauce, coq au vin, pot roast, frittatas, tacos, salads and whatever else I can think of.
Carrots have an affinity for anise, chervil, cinnamon, dill, parsley and tarragon, so when you’re using one or more of those herbs in a dish, think carrots, too.
And this is just the beginning of their uses. If you’re like me, you know people whose favorite dessert is carrot cake. No tray of crudités would be complete without carrot sticks.
And the best way to supercharge your health is with a glass of creamy, sweet carrot juice as the base for other juices like beet, celery, kale and chard. If you have some carrot juice left over, it makes a great, sweet reduction sauce to spoon over other cooked vegetables.