Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Carrots

My three-year-old son has a special relationship with carrots. At every meal, I ask him: what kind of veggie would you like? “Carrots!” is his usual reply. I’ve never seen a kid so enthusiastic about a root vegetable, to the point where I sometimes fear that he will develop that crazy disorder where your skin literally turns carrot-y orange-yellow from eating too many carrots (aka, carotenemia). I also tuck carrots into lots of dishes, from meat sauce for pasta to kale salad – carrots, both cooked and raw, are definitely one of our household go-to vegetables. There is a reason they are ubiquitous in so many cuisines: what’s better than a sweet, crunchy and colorful food? 

A Brief History

Carrots grown for their roots were first cultivated in what is now Afghanistan, before the tenth century (CE). According to the Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, carrots were cultivated long before then (and were even mentioned in a list of vegetables grown in the Babylonian gardens in the 8th century, BCE), and were grown not for their root, but for their leaves and seeds, both of which are highly aromatic.  The first carrots grown for their edible roots were yellow and purple-red; according to carrot geneticists, these cultivars spread to Asia and then to Japan by the seventeenth century. During Arab expansion post the tenth century CE, the roots were also brought east to Andalusia (in what is now Spain) and from Spain spread to the rest of Europe.

In Europe in the Middle Ages, carrot cultivars were also the original yellow or purple-red colors; it wasn’t until the Dutch – masterful carrot cultivators, apparently – began growing an orange type, probably around the seventeenth century, that our familiar orange carrot was born. Davidson notes that carrots were first brought to the New World as early as the sixteenth century, possibly first grown on an island off the coast of Venezuela. Early settlers from Europe brought carrots with them to North America, where they became firmly entrenched in our vegetable repertoire.

Factual Nibbles

  • There is some debate about whether the Dutch creation of an orange carrot variety was political in nature. The story goes that the orange cultivar of the root was created in tribute to William of Orange, leader of Dutch independence in the mid-sixteenth century.  Whether this is true or made up by historians, it’s a good story.
  • Another carrot controversy: baby carrots. Apparently an email made the rounds a few years ago that said that baby carrots (the kind you get in bags at the grocery store) were made from “deformed” regular carrots, which were cut down and soaked in chlorine as a preservative. The reality is this: baby carrots are not made from deformed carrots, but from a carrot variety specially bred to grow long and straight and close together, making them easier to whittle down into “baby” carrots. They have also been bred to contain more sugar, because Americans like sweet stuff. And they are, indeed, soaked in a chlorine mixture as an antimicrobial treatment, but are then rinsed in water. 
  • Orange carrots get their color from the presence of beta carotene (named, incidentally, after the carrot). Purple varieties get their color from the presence of anthocyanin, red from lycopene and yellow from lutein.
  • Speaking of beta carotene – did your mom ever tell you that eating carrots would help you see better in the dark? Beta carotene is important to eye health, but the myth that eating carrots improves night vision is actually propaganda created by a British campaign in WWII. (Click through to check out the amazing carrot-related propaganda posters!)

Cultivation

Carrots (aka Daucus carota subsp. sativus) are in the Apiaceae (carrot and parsley) family, closely related to lots of delicious herbs and veggies, including anise, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, dill and parsnips, among many others. Cultivars are basically divided into “Eastern” and “Western” types. According to the World Carrot Museum, Eastern carrots frequently have branched roots and are commonly reddish-purple or yellow (much like the original cultivars from Afghanistan). Western types are those that we are most familiar with in the US, with unbranched, orange, tapering roots. It is becoming increasingly easier to find different colored carrots in the US, especially at farmer’s markets and specialty grocery stores. Carrots generally are slow growing and somewhat finicky, requiring lots of moisture to germinate properly. They prefer cool weather, and can even be overwintered in the garden if they are heavily mulched. California, Michigan and Texas lead the US in carrot cultivation, while China, Russia and the US are tops in global carrot growing.

Seasonality

Carrots thrive in cool weather, making them readily available starting in the mid-to-late summer (from early spring plantings) through the late fall. They are also easy to store in the winter, making the veggie basically available year-round, even from smaller producers.

Environmental Impact

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, US carrot production is “highly mechanized and highly concentrated,” with only two California producers accounting for most of the carrot products sold in the US. Carrots are also number 23 on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides on Produce. If you’re concerned about either of these issues, pick up a bunch of carrots from your local farmer instead (and ask about his/her growing methods) – as a bonus, locally grown carrots tend to taste better, too. (*And check out our Real Food rule of thumb, below, for more info.

Characteristics

I’ve seen purple, red, white, yellow (and of course, orange) cultivars at my local co-op, which make for a stunning display on your crudités platter. Carrots also vary wildly in size – from tiny varieties (like the round Paris Market and the tiny Little Finger carrot) to giant specimens topping out at three to four inches in diameter. I prefer carrots that are no larger than an inch to two inches in diameter – they tend to be sweeter and juicier. All carrots have delicate, feathery greens, although if you’re purchasing carrots already bagged, the highly perishable tops have been removed for you. 

What to look for

If your carrots have their greens attached, look for feathery, perky leaves with no wilting, black spots or yellowing. The carrot roots should be firm (flaccid carrots are a no-go) and free of mushy or black/brown spots.

Nutrition

Carrots are loaded with vitamin A – one cup provides over 400% of your daily needs. (Vitamin A is important for a lot of things – including vision, immune function and reproduction.) They are also good sources of potassium, vitamin K and vitamin E, and are, of course, a great source of fiber. Cooking carrots makes the beta carotene (which the body turns into vitamin A) more bio-available.

What to Do with It

Carrots are an extremely versatile veggie – they are equally at home in sweet and savory dishes. They can be eaten raw, steamed, roasted, fried and stir-fried; made into puddings, cakes and sweet treats; and grated, puréed and grantinéed. Carrots pair well with other members of their family – including parsley, dill, cumin and cilantro, as well as with dairy products (especially butter and sour cream/crème fraîche and cheese), grains, nuts, meats (especially beef and wild game, like duck) and citrus. On the sweet side, they are traditionally paired with warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg.

Cooking

Carrots are an integral part of many culture’s cooking. In Italian cooking, carrots make up one part of Italian soffritto (along with celery and onion) – the flavor base of many dishes. They are used liberally in Indian, Middle Eastern, Eastern and Western European and many other cuisines. Roasting carrots plays up their natural sweetness (check out this roasted carrot and avocado salad). My favorite way to serve them, inspired by the late, great Marcella Hazan, is raw: coarsely grated, tossed with the juice of half a lemon, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper – nothing could be simpler or more deliciously carrot-y. I also love carrots pureed into soup (like this dead simple Moroccan carrot soup – one of my favorite fall standbys) and made into “fries” (like these oven-baked carrot fries). Don’t toss those carrot tops, either! They can be added to veggie stocks and soups and can be made into a yummy carrot top pesto – perfect with roasted carrots!

The trusty Carrot Museum tells us that carrot cake probably descended from medieval carrot puddings; carrots, like beets, were often used as a sugar substitute because of their natural sugar content. Some of the first recipes for “carrot cake” were published in the nineteenth century. And speaking of carrot sweets – in India, carrots are used to make a sweet called halwa, prepared especially for the holiday of Diwali, a Hindu festival also known as the “festival of lights.” Diwali falls on November 3rd this year, in case you wanted to whip up a batch of sweet carrot halwa in celebration!

Storage

If you’ve purchased carrots with their feathery tops, remove the tops immediately after you get home and store them separately. Wrap the greens in a paper towel and place in a zip-top bag in your crisper drawer. They will only keep for a day or two. Carrot roots, on the other hand, are champion long-term crisper drawer survivors. Stored loose or in a paper bag, most carrots will keep in the crisper for at least a month.

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Carrots preserve beautifully in a bunch of different ways – check out this stunning carrot jam and these pickled carrots recipes (Chinese-style, Moroccan-style, Mexican-style, American-style: take your pick). Carrots can also be easily canned and frozen.

Recipe

Braised Carrot Puree with Lamb Meatballs and Yogurt

Braising root veggies like carrots in a little bit of water with a little bit of fat for a long time concentrates their flavors and makes them extra delicious. In this recipe, the braised carrots are pureed, making a lovely base to top with Middle Eastern spiced lamb meatballs and yogurt. I’ve taken to making meatballs in the oven lately, primarily because cleanup is so much easier, but these would be equally lovely pan-fried, if you prefer. (Cooking meatballs in the oven doesn’t get you the crunchy exterior pan frying does, but it’s worth it to me to avoid the mess.) I love this dish with whole-wheat couscous, but pita would be equally delicious.

Ingredients:

For the braised carrot puree:
1 lb. carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 cup chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon butter
1 small clove garlic, peeled
Kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
14 teaspoon cayenne (or less, to taste)
18 teaspoon cumin

For the lamb meatballs:
1 lb. ground grass-fed lamb
1 small shallot, very finely minced
2 tablespoons unsalted, shelled pistachios, chopped (optional)
14 teaspoon allspice
18 teaspoon cinnamon
12 teaspoon kosher salt

To serve:
14 cup whole-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons unsalted, shelled pistachios, chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Special equipment: food processor, blender or food mill

Method:

For the carrot puree:
1. Cut trimmed carrots into half-moons about 12 – inch wide.
2. In a medium saucepan, add the carrots, chicken stock or water, butter, garlic clove and a generous pinch of salt. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce heat to medium low and cover the pot with the lid on slightly ajar. Braise the carrots for about 45 minutes, or until they are very tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. (Most of the water should have boiled away, leaving the carrots coated in butter with just a bit of liquid. If the liquid boils away before the carrots are done, add more in 14 cup increments.) Discard garlic.
4. Let the carrots cool slightly, then puree using a food processor, blender or food mill. Stir in lemon juice, cayenne and cumin. Taste and correct for salt. Set aside.

While the carrots are cooking, make the lamb meatballs:
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the ground lamb, minced shallots, optional pistachios, allspice, cinnamon and salt. Gently mix with your hands until just combined. 
3. Form the mixture into balls about 1 12 inches in diameter. Place on the rimmed baking sheet.
4. Bake in the oven until cooked through, between 15-18 minutes.

To serve:
Put a dollop of carrot puree in a bowl or plate. Top with lamb meatballs, a drizzle of yogurt, the optional pistachios and chopped cilantro. (And a some harissa or hot sauce wouldn’t hurt a bit!)

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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