Carrots are like trusty old friends in the kitchen: supportive, low maintenance, and always there when you need them. They’re often a background ingredient in braises, soups, and sautés, they keep well, and they’re available year-round. Carrots are also an easy and satisfying snack, thanks to the deluge of “baby-cut” carrots in supermarkets. What sometimes gets forgotten is that carrots can be the feature attraction in many dishes, from soups (see my recipe for Roasted Carrot Soup) and salads to purées and roasted vegetable combinations. Carrots take well to many different cooking methods; they can be boiled, steamed, braised, sautéed, glazed, stir-fried, roasted, and even grilled.
Finding the freshest carrots
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 tops should still be tender, juicy, and full of good flavor. Look for firm roots and fresh, dark greens. Once you get them home, cut off the tops so they don’t draw moisture from the roots. Instead of throwing away the tops, which are full of nutrition and flavor, try adding them to soups or chopping them and using in salads. When buying packaged carrots, look for plump, firm, fresh-looking roots with no sign of shaggy hair-like protrusions. Baby-cut carrots, which are actually “adult” roots cut and trimmed to masquerade as sweet young things, have muscled in on full-size carrots’ market share. These pre-peeled pieces are certainly convenient, since little or no prep is required, but that’s the sole reason to buy them. Since they’re already peeled, they lose moisture and flavor (and probably nutrients) faster than regular carrots. I don’t find any correlation between flavor and size. Thick or thin, carrots can be tender, sweet, and crunchy, or tired and lackluster. I prefer medium to fat carrots because they’re easier to peel and there’s less waste.
Although carrots have good keeping qualities, they sacrifice sweetness and flavor to long storage. For that reason, aim to buy in quantities you’ll use within a week or two rather than buying in bulk.
24-karat flavor pairings
|bay leaves||cinnamon||fresh and dried hot chiles||honey|
|chervil||cloves||lemon juice and zest||nuts|
|chives||coriander||orange juice and zest||vinegar|
A trio of carrot salads
Raw or very lightly cooked carrots are the foundation of many great salads. Experiment with different cuts for raw carrots: tiny matchsticks, long curls made with a vegeetable peeler, or shredded on a grater or mandoline. To help larger pieces of carrot better absorb a dressing, blanch them very briefly in boiling salted water first. Here are three different directions to go with carrot salads.
• Marinate shredded carrots and dried currants or raisins in fresh orange juice and a dash of sherry or balsamic vinegar. Garnish with toasted almonds.
• For a spicy North African carrot salad, simmer thick slices of carrot in salted water with a couple of bay leaves just until they lose their crunch. Drain, let dry, and toss with extra-virgin olive oil while still hot. Stir in a little harissa (hot chile paste) and chill. Arrange on a plate, along with chopped preserved lemon, slices of feta, and oil-cured black olives.
• Mix up a vibrant, spicy salad of julienned carrots seasoned with salt, sugar, a pinch of cayenne, and a good dousing of vinegar (white, cider, or malt). Toss with plenty of slivered fresh mint and basil and some thinly sliced fresh chile; garnish with a sprinkling of chopped toasted peanuts.
Simple carrot side dishes
• Braise whole small carrots or long chunks in butter or olive oil, a little water or stock, and a bit of honey and Dijon mustard. Braise until tender and then let the liquid reduce to a syrupy, sweet-tangy glaze.
• Roast carrots, alone or with other root vegetables, lightly coated in olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin, and a pinch of cayenne in a medium- hot oven until tender and caramelized.
• Make a mashed carrot purée by boiling carrots and perhaps parsnips and mashing as you would potatoes. Enrich the purée with butter or cream and season with a dash of nutmeg and ground ginger.
• Fry up some spicy carrot fritters using a mixture of grated carrots and potatoes, chopped scallions, beaten eggs, a little cream, flour, salt, and crushed red chile flakes.