My first distinct memory of eating carrots is from when I was about 7. Mom and Dad had gone out for the evening, leaving me and my sister in the care of our older brother, whose duty it was to serve us the dinner Mom had prepared. Dinner included her usual chopped salad with shredded lettuce and diced carrots, tomatoes, onions and celery. When serving the salad, my sly brother asked me if I liked carrots. I said yes, and in typical big-brother fashion, he proceeded to pick out every single tiny orange cube and add it to my plate.
Otherwise, I don't remember carrots from my childhood. I'm sure my mother cooked them — added them to pot roast and soup, probably steamed them with a little butter. I know we had them raw for "relish trays" on special occasions, but mostly they faded into the background.
So I never thought much about cooking carrots for myself once I moved out on my own. I didn't dislike them, but they were easy to ignore. I ate them when dining at friends' homes, on the ubiquitous crudite platter or in the dreaded carrot-raisin slaw (dreaded for me because I loathe raisins), but they seldom found their way into my own kitchen. It didn't help that, at the markets where I shopped, carrots came in 1-pound bags. I might have been willing to buy an occasional carrot or two, but I wasn't willing to commit myself to a whole pound.
Janet A. Zimmerman is an award-winning food writer and cooking class instructor based in Atlanta. Her work has twice been featured in the anthology Best Food Writing (2008 and 2010), and her one and only piece of fiction was printed in the anthology Literary Lunch. In 2010, she received the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Bert Greene Journalism Award. She is a senior manager for the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to culinary education.
Then I experienced a series of carrot epiphanies. The first was a Turkish carrot salad in a cooking class; it was simple to make but complex in flavor. Yogurt dressing spiked with cumin and a sprinkling of fresh mint turned grated carrots into a haunting, exotic dish, one I couldn't have imagined.
Not long after that, at a San Francisco restaurant, our waiter brought my friend and me a complimentary amuse bouche — a tall shot glass of orange soup topped with a bit of bright green oil. "Carrot soup with vanilla and chive oil," he explained. I was dubious — carrots with vanilla? I took a sip and was instantly converted; the soup remains, to this day, one of the best things I have ever tasted. I wasn't alone. I glanced at my friend, who had downed her shot as quickly as I had, and could tell she was thinking the same thing I was: Could we possibly lick the last bit of soup out of the glasses without our tongues getting stuck? I began to rethink carrots.
Although red and even purple carrots (common in Asia) can be found at American specialty markets, the cultivar we see most is the "carotene" carrot, which was probably developed in Holland in the 17th century. Perhaps because those orange roots are so very familiar, they're often pushed into a supporting role in soups and stews, or eaten raw as the mainstay of a dieter's snacks. But carrots are so complex in both flavor and aroma, they deserve much more.
With their mix of earthy and sweet flavors, carrots are complemented by both "sweet" seasonings such as vanilla and ginger and bolder spices such as cumin and cayenne. They're a natural with bright, fresh herbs such as parsley, mint, chives, dill or cilantro. You can highlight their sweetness with honey or maple syrup, or counter it with the tang of yogurt, vinegar or mustard. They pair well with other vegetables — roasted glazed carrots and brussels sprouts are a great combination, as are steamed carrots and sugar snap peas with a bit of sesame oil — but they shine brightest when they're the solo star.
Carrots are amazingly protean. Not only do different cooking methods highlight different flavors, but even the way they're cut can bring out some surprising changes in how they taste. One of my favorite experiments with my beginning culinary students is a "carrot tasting." They're astonished at how much sweeter grated carrots taste than whole carrots, and they often cannot believe that carrot juice has no added sugar.
All this gives carrots incredible versatility in the kitchen. Since my carrot awakening, I've come to love them roasted or raw, sauteed or steamed, tossed in tart vinaigrettes or coated in sweet glazes. With so many possibilities, I no longer hesitate to buy the big bag. My fear of carrot commitment is over.
This makes an intense soup that, I think, is better suited to a first course than an entree. The addition of carrot juice, a technique I borrowed from a recipe in Modernist Cuisine, gives the soup a deep, sweet carrot flavor. The chive oil highlights it even further.
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into coins about 1/2 inch thick
1/2 cup dry sherry
3 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup carrot juice
Kosher salt to taste
Plain whole milk yogurt
Chive oil (recipe below)
For the soup, melt the butter in a large saucepan or pot over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming and starts to brown, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the carrots and sprinkle with salt. Cook for another 5 to 6 minutes until onions are very soft and carrots have begun to soften.
Turn the heat to high and add the sherry. Bring to a boil and cook until most of the sherry has evaporated.
Turn the heat back to medium and add the chicken stock. Bring the soup to a simmer and cover. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until carrots are very soft. Stir in the vanilla and cayenne.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Pour the soup into a blender and puree until smooth. (If soup is still hot, work in batches and be careful to hold the lid on firmly.) If soup is not completely smooth, pour it into a bowl through a medium sieve.
Return the puree to the pot and stir in the carrot juice. Bring just to a simmer and add salt to taste. To serve, drizzle with a little chive oil and yogurt.
1/2 ounce fresh chives, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
Place the chives and oil in a small food processor, blender or chopper. Blend on high speed until completely smooth and bright green. Press through a fine mesh strainer. Keep refrigerated for up to a week. (Try the leftover chive oil in salad dressings or drizzled over other vegetables.)
The full amount of cumin in this recipe may prove too assertive for those unused to the spice. Start with 1 teaspoon and add the rest if you like. The salad goes well with Middle Eastern dishes, especially lamb.
3 cups grated carrots (3 to 4 carrots, depending on size)
1 tablespoon mint, plus additional for garnish
In a small dry skillet over medium heat, gently toast the cumin seeds until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Let cool and grind in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
Whisk together the yogurt, olive oil, garlic, cayenne, sugar, pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon of the ground cumin. (For improved flavor, make the dressing an hour or two before assembling the salad.)
Right before serving, toss the carrots and mint together gently. Add enough dressing to coat the salad thoroughly. Adjust seasoning, adding more cumin and salt to taste. Sprinkle with additional mint, if desired.
Browning the carrots gives them a sweetness and complexity that's balanced by the mustard and lemon juice. This recipe is also good made with half a pound of green beans in place of half the carrots. Cut the beans into the same length as the carrots.
1 pound carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into strips about 2-by-1/4-by-1/8 inch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (1/4 teaspoon if using regular chicken stock)
1/4 to 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon Creole mustard (or other whole grain mustard)
Over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet large enough to hold the carrots in a single layer. Add enough oil to form a thin coat on the bottom of the skillet and swirl the butter and oil together.
When the butter starts to brown, add the carrots and sprinkle with the salt. Stir to coat the carrots with the fat. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, without stirring, or until the carrots brown a bit on the bottom.
Toss and turn to expose the unbrowned sides to the heat. Cook 2 to 3 minutes to brown the other sides.
Add enough stock to cover the bottom of the pan and cover the pan. Turn the heat down to medium and simmer for a few minutes, until the stock has mostly evaporated, leaving a glaze on the carrots. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the lemon juice, mustard and remaining tablespoon of butter. Toss well and serve.
This recipe, from The New Southern-Latino Table by Sandra Gutierrez (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), makes a delicious appetizer or a tangy accompaniment to rich meat dishes. To keep the herbs bright green, cool the carrots to room temperature before adding them. The cooking time will vary depending on the size of carrots used and how done you like them.
2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (leaves and tender stems)
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Dash freshly ground black pepper
Place the carrots in a medium saucepan filled with cold water. Bring the carrots to a boil and cook over medium-high heat, uncovered, until fork tender, 15 to 20 minutes (8 to 10 minutes for tender-crisp carrots).
While the carrots are cooking, in a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and oil and set aside. Drain the carrots and place them in a bowl. Pour the vinaigrette over the hot carrots and mix to combine. Allow the carrots to cool to room temperature.
When the carrots have cooled, add the cilantro, parsley, mint, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.
Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature.
The escabeche will keep for up to 1 week in your refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature before serving.