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Wed April 4, 2012
Carrots: Beyond The Relish Tray
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.
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.