The beauty of a carrot is its evanescent scent, which doesn’t last long after the root is pulled from the ground. The best carrots are the freshest, and the best chance of finding just-pulled carrots is at farmers markets.
Truck gardeners, farmers and commercial growers stagger their plantings so carrots are available all year, but the rich and sunny aroma of fresh carrots — akin to parsley and celery, close relatives of the carrot — is especially appreciated in cold December.
It’s a good idea to select organically grown carrots. Many flavor components are in the thin skins that many people peel away before using. There are 26 agricultural chemicals that may be used on carrots grown conventionally, according to the Pesticide Action Network’s “What’s on My Food?” website. But organic carrots just need the soil scrubbed off and don’t need peeling.
If your local farmers market has fresh-pulled carrots, you’re in luck. But now, in winter, it’s more likely you’ll buy your organic carrots at Oliver’s, Pacific Market, Nugget, Fiesta or Whole Foods. Avoid those stubby so-called “baby” carrots that are ground out of larger pieces by machine and taste like it.
Choose slender bunches that still have their tops. You can tell a lot about the quality of a carrot by examining its foliage. It should be a bright, lively green and smell like fresh carrots. If the foliage is limp, losing color or stale-looking with some blackened leaves, the carrots are past their prime.
Carrots store best on market shelves or in bins or bags when their tops are cut off, so if the carrots are topless, they most likely have been around awhile. If that’s all you can find, check the place where the foliage was attached. Make sure there’s no mold. The root should be firm and not bend easily. If there are white, hairlike rootlets growing around the root, avoid that carrot. It’s really old.
The vegetable we know as the carrot probably originated in Afghanistan, where the wild carrots are purple due to the presence of an anthocyanin. From there, they traveled east to China and west to the Middle East and Rome, where the Romans called them “carota” (Latin for head or top) and used them for their aromatic tops, much as we use chervil or parsley today, since their roots were still small.
In the 17th century, the Dutch bred them for root size and for a rich orange color. Today plant scientists are breeding color back in, and we can find maroon, purple, red, white and yellow carrots as well as orange.
Carrots are good for you. Three ounces of root have 7 milligrams of beta-carotene, which we metabolize into vitamin A, giving us 250% of our daily requirement of this important vitamin. Carrots are also sweet — they’re 7% sugar, which is why fresh carrot juice is such a sweet treat.
Aside from the wide range of standard uses, from steamed carrots to coleslaw to carrot cake, you also can make carrot juice into a sweet reduction sauce to enhance other vegetables. On the other side of the world, cooks in Iran grate some on their pilaf. In China, carrots are preserved in sugar and pickled.
If you have fresh organic carrots, steam their green tops to make a base for fish or use them uncooked with ice to present freshly shucked oysters. Among spices, carrots pair well with anise, chervil, cinnamon, cumin, dill, parsley and tarragon. Chervil seems an especially good herb to sprinkle over sauteed and buttered carrots.
Roll roasted carrots in a little melted butter, maple syrup and orange juice to give them a glaze before serving. Carrots are a principal ingredient, with onions, celery, parsley, thyme and garlic, in the useful mirepoix flavor base of French cooking.
Mirepoix (meer-uh-pwah) is the secret ingredient of good cooks around the world. It enhances soups, gravy, sauces, meats, stews, fish and shellfish. Use it as a savory condiment to improve almost anything.
Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
Finely dice the carrot, onion and celery.
Saute them in the butter with the parsley, bay leaf, thyme and garlic for about 7 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown.
Add salt and pepper, remove the bay leaf and cool the mixture. Store in a jar in the fridge for up to a week.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at email@example.com
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