When my son, Graydon, was three he ran through the kitchen one morning. “I’m hungry Papa!” he yelled. “Make me lunch, make it quick, and make it crunchy!” I told him to eat a carrot.
Graydon is almost 16 now and he’s evolved into a more complex and meditative person. Carrots have evolved since their earliest days too. Back in the Stone Age it was the carrot plant’s greens, not its roots that attracted humanity’s attention. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Scientists classify carrots in the Umbelliferae, along with other aromatic herbs like cilantro, dill, cilantro, caraway, chervil, anise, parsley and fennel. Carrot greens are not especially strong smelling, but fresh carrot seed has a rich and complex scent. If I was going to leave the farming life behind for an urbane, sophisticated existence as a perfume designer I’d move to Paris and develop a fragrance from the essence of carrot seed that would appeal to all sexes.
The carrot family’s scientific name, Umbelliferae, refers to the characteristic umbrella shape of their flowers. Carrot flowers are pretty. Queen Anne’s Lace is one form of carrot that has found a home in the floral trade. The carrot’s affinity with the other Umbelliferae goes beyond the merely scientific; carrots marry well on the plate and in the pot with other Umbelliferae- think of carrot parsley salad, carrot chervil salad, carrot dill salad, carrot cilantro salad, etc. It has been a long time since carrot varieties were selected for their flavor of their greens, but a carrot’s leaves can be minced and used judiciously in salads or as garnishes, just like cousin parsley. Carrots tops can also profitably be used in stocks and soups.
After millennia of gathering and eating wild carrot greens and carrot seeds we humans settled down, invented agriculture, and developed carrot breeds with edible roots. For subsistence farmers root crops have certain advantages over leafy greens, namely, they can be stored for long periods of time in the ground or in a cellar without any processing or refrigeration. What follows below is an outline, painted in broad strokes, of the major types of carrots available to the cook and gardener with their relative advantages and disadvantages noted and compared:
1. White carrots: First developed from the native wild European carrot, white carrots have been used as fodder for horses and in the kitchen. White carrots are vigorous growers through all seasons, resistant to cold, tolerant of heat, with big, strong, feathery tops and they taste good, especially when roasted. I’m not crazy about raw white carrots– they’re not terribly sweet and can be chewy to the point of giving your jaws a workout– but they are fine roasted. The sugars that lie latent in the raw white carrot’s flesh are caramelized in the roasting process so the roots sweeten and the heat mellows the white carrot’s texture to an agreeable, toothsome degree that never degrades into the cloyingly soft mush that some orange carrots take on when cooked. Some cooks with French proclivities like white carrots for the stock pot because these carrots effectively flavor the broth without imparting an orange color that might distract the diner or spoil the appearance of a sauce or soup that’s intended to be whiter than white .
2. Colored Asiatic carrots: Forget white! Across Central Asia carrots come in a rainbow of colors from red through purple, all the way to black. Like white carrots, most rainbow carrots taste best when cooked. (Have you ever noticed that traditional Indian or Afghan cuisine is all about cooked food and features very few raw salads?) Asian colored carrot plants do grow vigorously, but– and it’s a big “but”– heirloom Asian carrots DO NOT produce roots reliably unless they’re planted after the summer solstice so that the plant is developing as the hours of sunlight are declining. Spring plant Indian red carrots will bolt to flower every time and leave the gardener with only a wiry, fibrous, woody root for their efforts. But plant these carrots in summer and you’ll get a nice fall crop of roots. In the fall, as night time temperatures drop, a carrot root naturally sweetens because the plant converts starches to sugars as a defense mechanism against freezing to death. Cells filled with sugary water have a lower freezing point. This organic process is why most root crops taste their best during winter.
3. Modern Orange carrots: Can you spell “felicitous miscegenation?” Orange carrots developed from a cross between the colored Asiatic carrots and their white European relatives. True, Romans had some carrots that tended towards yellow, but in general, when we read Roman cook books it’s hard to tell if the authors are talking about what we’d call a carrot or a parsnip since the used the same word for both distinctly different plants. Our iconic, Bugs Bunny style orange carrots didn’t develop until fairly recently. Don’t believe me? Go to an art museum and check out lush Dutch still life paintings from the 1600s that feature cornucopias of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Dutch artists were so realistically inclined that they painted the iridescent flies the saw crawling on the food, and they painted WHITE carrots! Show me a Dutch still life from that period with a bright orange carrot and I’ll show you a fraud! But modern or not, orange carrots have many virtues; they reliably produce roots no matter what season they’re planted in, they’re sweeter than their white, red, purple, or black cousins, and they have a color that appeals to young children. There are several common types of orange carrot commonly available for the cook or gardener:
A. Imperator: I think of the Imperator as the “Safeway carrot.” Imperators are long, straight carrots that grow vigorously. Most important, many varieties of Imperator have been developed to grow evenly and rapidly so that they can be machine harvested when grown on sand ground. Imperator carrots also have slim shoulders so they fit well into a 1lb cello bag. Imperators are cheap, crunchy and they taste ok, especially if fresh, and they work well for major food processors. In Latin the word imperator translates into “commander” and is cognate with words like “emperor,” or “imperious.” I find the authoritarian flavor of this name to be somewhat distasteful and I choose not to grow Imperator carrots.
B. Chantenay: The Chantenay carrot is typically shorter than the Imperator, with broad shoulders, and triangular profile that tapers to a blunt tip when young but that can fill out almost to a beer can’s bulk if given time in the ground. These carrots store very well in the ground or root cellar and they taste great raw or cooked. Because of their shape they do not fit well in the industry standard cello pak so you don’t see them in the chain stores too often. I like Chantenay carrots a lot. My favorite orange Chantenay carrot is Royal Chantenay. My favorite yellow Chantenay is Yellow Sun.
C. Danvers half- long: The Danvers is a carrot type with good flavor and vigor. They have well-defined shoulders that taper to a point at the tip. They are shorter than Imperator cultivars, but they’re more tolerant of heavy soil and make nice bunched carrots for the farmers’ market. The soil on my farm is not particularly heavy and I’m happy with Chantenay carrots so I don’t usually grow Danvers carrots.
D. Nantes carrots: These carrots are cylindrical in shape, blunt and rounded at both the top and tip, and relatively fast to grow from germination to harvest. Young Nantes cultivars can be sweeter than other young carrots, and they make nice baby carrots for salads. By contrast, Imperator or Chantenay carrots may be better choices for cooking, but they need to mature in the field before they develop their full flavor profile or deliver an acceptable yield. A baby Imperator carrot is like an orange string! I like Nantes carrots for my spring planted early crops. Then I move on to the Chantenay types for my main season and over-wintering crops.
E. Paris market carrots: Parisian carrots are round like radishes. They can be a fashion forward choice for a whimsical cook intent on playing with form, color, and expectation. “What? A round carrot?” Because of they are very short Paris market carrots can tolerate very heavy soils. I grow Parisian round carrots from time to time, especially for my restaurant customers. Sometimes children like them too, because they’re different. Other times kids reject Parisian carrots because they’re round; kids can be SO conservative about food. I hope you’re liberal minded when it comes to dinner. Below are some recipes that stretch modern convention by including carrot greens.
copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
Recipes and Notes from Julia and Jonathan:
from Julia: ok: Andy’s last line threw me for a loop. Yes, carrot tops are 100% edible. Eat them all you like. However, I personally don’t find them palatable, and living in the amazing year-round fresh food arena we live in I ask: why eat carrot tops!? I’m simply not hungry enough. So here’s a recipe for Carrot Top Dye from the Carrot Musuem. That’s the best I can do. Here are more recipes for carrot tops in case you want to give them a culinary spin: just don’t invite me over for dinner! (insert annoying smiley emoticon)
Carrot Leaf Dye
adapted from the Carrot Museum: an amazing website with more carrot lore than you knew existed.
INGREDIENTS: chop up the green foliage of 6 large carrot tops, 1 litre boiling water, alum.
Extra foliage can be added to made a slightly darker colour using no more than 300ml of water
EXTRACTION PROCESS: boil tops for half an hour. Strain liquid, and add 2 teaspoons of alum; make sure the alum is dissolved.
COLOUR MADE: light yellow.
LIGHTFAST QUALITIES: 4: fugitive pigment. The colour fades away over 3 to 5 months, depending on the amount of carrot tops used.
SHADEFAST QUALITIES: the colour fades over a 2 year period.
RUBBINGS: makes a very pale green colour.
METHOD: take the leaves and use them as a crayon, rub directly onto the paper.
LIGHTFAST QUALITY: 4: fugitive pigment. Fades over a 6 month period to an off white colour.
SHADEFAST QUALITY: 4: fugitive pigment. Fades over a 6 month period to an off white colour.
Now some real carrot recipes:
¼ cup olive oil or rendered goose or duck fat
1.5 pounds carrots, any color, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup water
6 Tablespoons raisins, plumped in water or sweet wine
3 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
S & P to taste
Dash of vinegar or sugar to taste, optional
Warm the oil (or fat) in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the carrots and saute until well coated with fat, 5-8 minutes. Add the water and cover the pan. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer until the carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.
Add the raisins with their liquid, and the pine nuts. Season with S & P. Add a little vinegar or sugar, or both. Serve warm or at room temperature.
from Chef Jonathan Miller
Oil or butter
1 small onion, chopped
2” ginger, peeled and grated
1 lb carrots, chopped
2-3 cup veggie stock or chicken stock
¼ cup cream
Heat 2-3 TBL olive oil or butter in a pot and add the onion. Sauté until softened, about 8 minutes, then add the ginger and carrots. Lower the heat, stir to coat everything with some oil, then cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the stock – use just enough to barely cover the carrots – and the cream, bring to a simmer, cover again, lower heat and cook until the carrots are super tender, about 25-30 minutes, or up to 50. Allow to cool somewhat and then blend the soup in a blender. Add some salt and taste for seasoning. Reheat gently, then garnish with some chopped cilantro.
This Week’s Quinoa Salad
from Chef Jonathan Miller
1 c quinoa
4-8 carrots, depending on size, halved or quartered lengthwise
2 large red onions, cut into thick rounds
1 bunch cooking greens like chard, collards, or kale
sherry vinegar to taste
1/4 c parsley, chopped
1/4 c cilantro, chopped
Toss the carrots and red onion with some olive oil and sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Roast on a baking sheet at 400 until caramelized and sweet, about 50 minutes. Allow to cool and cut into large dice.
Cook your quinoa while the veggies roast: rinse it under cold water to remove the saponin. Drain and put into a saucepan and toast over high heat until the quinoa smells nutty and is popping, about 10 minutes. Pour in 2 c cold water and a little salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and steam for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Wilt the cooking greens by either sauteeing them or blanching them, your choice. If using chard, include the stems, finely chopped, for texture and nutrition. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and toss well. Check for seasoning, adding salt or olive oil, or more sherry vinegar as you like. Serve at room temperature.
We will have even more recipes for carrots and also for escarole and kale in this week’s Ladybug Post Card! And We’ll have my own Quinoa Salad recipe in that letter too.
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