Carrots are such a ubiquitous ingredient to our everyday diet that they can easily be taken for granted. Any self-respecting cook makes sure a bundle of this first-responder root vegetable is always in the crisper.
Carrots are among the first foods we eat as humans, as their versatility and nutritional value are ideal for baby food. As we grow teeth, taste and a kinship with cartoons, parents are quick to make carrot sticks among the first of our snacks, using Bugs Bunny's carrot-addiction to enhance their allure.
Once carrots join our lives in cooked form, they begin to lose some of our allegiance. As a teenager, I left carrots behind once they arrived overcooked under the influence of hours with a pot roast and potatoes on a journey toward fork-tenderness.
What I didn't know then was that the loss of texture came at the reward of gaining the natural sweetness carrots release as they sweat toward softness in whatever spa they convalesce.
When making sauce of either tomato or green chile, I like to add carrots, grated on a microplane, to imbue a little vegetal depth and natural sweetness to the mix.
A building block
The humble carrot in concert with celery and onion makes up mirepoix — a building block in so many brilliant French dishes. Do Chua, is the simple, delicious mixture of lightly pickled carrots and daikon radish found on Vietnamese tables. A Mexican variation calls for pickling carrots, onions and jalapenos with a little bay leaf and few cloves. Carrots are used as liberally in India from salads to daal. The most popular variation in north India is the dessert Gaajar Kaa Halwaa, in which grated carrots are cooked in milk solid state then adorned with nuts and butter. In western India it's not uncommon to find carrot salads seasoned with mustard seeds and toasted hot green peppers. Julienne carrots are often added to basmati rice for additional flavor and color.
Even the greens are edible, though rabbits and insects are more likely to nosh them than humans.
The high amount of beta carotene, released more fully by cooking, is a natural producer of Vitamin A. It helps eyesight, and if you're to believe “Being John Malkovich,” which you shouldn't, it will help you live long beyond your expiration date.
What you might not know is the carrot's birth is believed to have occurred in the Middle East — namely Afghanistan and Iran. Initially, carrots were grown for their aromatic leaves and seeds, not their roots. Relatives parsley, fennel, dill and cumin are still used as such.
Another thing you might not know is carrots come in a variety of color. Rainbow carrots have become more common in Oklahoma City, found at Whole Foods Market and some Homeland stores. In rainbow bundles you'll find carrots in purple, yellow and orange. In northern India, carrots red as raspberries grow. Some evidence indicates the first carrots came in red and yellow only to find each other irresistible and they bred orange carrots into existence.
In modern application, carrots don't stand alone too often unless you're buying baby carrots to dip in Ranch dressing, glazing for Thanksgiving as pitch-perfect seasonal side dish or shredding with raisins into a salad that you really should just buy from Boulevard Cafeteria because I promise you'll have a hard time beating the one they make.
The aforementioned natural sweetness of carrots long ago made them popular in desserts. If you find a better carrot cake than the one made by La Baguette Bakery let me know. Despite those endorsements, I've included some recipes for each today.
Carrots also are used in preserves, and the juice is widely marketed as a health drink.
Gardeners will tell you carrots make a wonderful companion plant. Some say dropping a few carrots among your tomato plants helps production. Flowering carrot tops attract wasps that might scare you away, but while you're gone make a meal out of garden pests.
When preparing for Julia Child's 100th Birthday dinner at The Coach House, chefs John Bennett and Robert Dickson threw an impromptu dinner I was lucky enough to be a part of, meaning I got bossed around a lot (amazing what menial tasks I'll perform for an expertly made meal).
As the menu was coming together, Dickson volunteered to make Carottes a la Concierge, which Child included in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1.”
Check out his rendition of the French classic first introduced by his lifelong friend Julia Child.
Carottes a la Concierge
In his variation, chef John Bennett cooks the carrots and sauce separately and has reduced the cook time without reducing a single calorie from this gazillion-calorie classic.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1½ pounds carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
3 shallots sliced thin
3 to 4 cloves garlic sliced thin
4 tablespoons butter or olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken stock or broth
¼ cup milk
2 tablespoons cream
½ teaspoon dry thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons minced chives
• Blanch the carrots in salted water with bay leaf, no more than two minutes. Drain and cook.
• Cook the onions and shallots in 1 tablespoon butter in a 2 ½-quart saucepan, tossing occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and simmer at medium to medium low heat while you make the sauce. The vegetables should be tender but not browned. So, don't be afraid to turn the temperature to low.
• In a second saucepan, melt the remaining butter/oil. Whisk in the flour, and cook 3 minutes.
• Whisk the stock into the flour, then the milk, and finally the seasonings. Simmer, uncovered for until the liquid has thickened, correct seasoning and add cream.
• Turn hot vegetable onto a platter and coat with sauce, top with parsley and chives, reserve remaining sauce in a bowl and add to the platter.
Chef's Note: Chef Bennett suggests a tablespoon of fresh-grated ginger would make an interesting addition.