This root vegetable is the workhorse of the kitchen. When used raw, carrots make a crisp and refreshing salad. When cooked, their sweetness intensifies and they become tender. Along with onions and celery, carrots form an aromatic base (called a mirepoix) for many soups and stews. Though orange is the most common color of carrots, this member of the parsley family can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from purple to white, slender to chubby, tapered to conical, even round. Most of the so-called baby carrots you find at the supermarket are actually mature carrots whittled down to appear younger. They can be convenient to use, since they require little prep, but they won't have the tender sweetness of true immature carrots, which you can find at farmer's markets in late spring.
1 medium carrot = 2-1/2 oz. = 1/2 cup coarsely grated = 1/3 cup small dice
Parsnips, though less sweet, can make an intriguing substitute for carrots, especially when roasted.
Your best guarantee of freshness is to buy carrots in bunches, with their leafy green tops still attached. Even when they're very large, carrots with fresh tops should still be tender, juicy, and full of good flavor. Look for firm roots and fresh, dark greens. When buying packaged carrots, look for plump, firm, fresh-looking roots with no sign of shaggy hair-like protrusions.
If carrots are young and tender, there's no need to peel them; the skin packs a lot of flavor as well as vitamins. As carrots mature, their skin becomes a little bitter, so it's wise to peel off just a thin layer. Very mature carrots can have a core that tastes woody and fibrous; remove it by cutting the carrots lengthwise and then cutting along the sides of the core where it meets the outer orange part of the carrot.
Once you get them home, cut off the green tops if still attached so they don't draw moisture from the roots. Store carrots in the refrigerator; though they do keep well, they lose sweetness and flavor the longer they're stored. Peeled carrots will dry out faster than unpeeled.