In his book, The Carrot Purple, food historian Joel Denker tells us that the iconic carrot as we know it today, brightly orange and deliciously sweet, was once nothing more than a novelty. Up until the 17th century, carrots were generally purple or yellow, and fraught with issues. It seems the purple carrot juice stained the hands of cooks and turned an unsightly brown in soups and sauces. It is widely believed that the popularity of the orange carrot “took root” in Holland during the reign of William the Orange, where it was cultivated to honor his Royal House. But the true secret to its success is probably found in its honey-sweet taste.
The carrot, or Daucus carota sativus, is a member of the Umbelliferae family, which includes dill, anise, coriander (cilantro), and parsley, and is one of the oldest foods known to man, with primitive wild varieties dating back to the Neolithic period. The Afghans were probably the first to domesticate carrots. The Moors introduced them to North Africa, Spain and the Mediterranean. Eventually the colonist would introduce carrots to the New World.
Available year round, carrots are biennials and generally peak in October through April. More than just delicious, they are nutritional powerhouses and packed with beta carotene.
There is a world of carrots beyond the plastic wrapped, mass produced variety sold in supermarkets. If you’re not familiar with them, venture to your nearest farmers market for an eye-opening experience. Not only will you find various colors, but there are a myriad of shapes and sizes. (Imagine a carrot as thick as a small zucchini.)
In addition to orange, the spectrum of colors includes white, golden, scarlet red, and purple so deep it borders on black. Nutritional values vary with color as does taste and texture. Orange carrots are rich in betacarotene, and red carrots have lycopene. Gold and orange carrots are sweeter than red and purple varieties, and lighter carrots are juicer than darker ones.
If grouped by shape, most carrots fall into one of several cultivars shown in the diagram below. The Paris Market is a palm-size, round French heirloom with sweet flavor. The pale orange Oxheart, also known as the Guerande, has been known to weigh as much as a pound. The cigar-shaped Nantes varieties are about 8 inches (20 cm) long and can be quite thick.
The short and stout Chantenay is broad at the “shoulder” and tapers quickly to a rounded tip; also very sweet. The long and tapered Imperator is the classic supermarket variety. It is sweet and tender and generally 8 to 11 inches (20 to 28 cm) long. The stocky Kuroda, with its rounded root tip, grows to about 7 inches (18 cm) and is the preferred juicing carrot. The Danvers is equally stocky though slightly shorter with a tapered point.
Buying & Storing
When buying carrots, check that they are firm. They should not bend easily when pressure is applied from both ends. Their fern-like greens perish quickly and draw moisture and nutrients out of the root if left on too long. So they are often removed before going to market. Avoid carrots that are dry, cracked, split or have mold or slime on the surface.
Store carrots in a sealed plastic bag in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. They should last about 2 weeks, depending on how fresh they were when purchased. Some varieties will keep longer.
To freeze carrots, clean, peel, and slice them first. Blanch them in boiling water for about two minutes and then plunge them into very cold water. Allow them to cool and dry completely. Spread them in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with wax or parchment paper and place them in the freezer for two hours. Transfer them to an air-tight freezer bag or container, and return to the freezer. They should keep for 8-10 months.
Preparing & Cooking
Wash carrots thoroughly before cooking or eating, even if you intend on peeling them. While many of the carrots nutrients are found in the skins, they can be quite bitter. Most cooks choose to peel them for reasons of taste, but the skins can be left on. To remove dirt, use a plastic scouring pad or a firm vegetable brush.
Carrots are one of the most versatile vegetables. They can be boiled, steamed, or even braised. Oven roasting caramelizes their sugars and adds tremendous depth of flavor. Considered an aromatic vegetable, carrots, they are commonly used in mirepoix, along with onions and celery, to flavor soups and sauces. They are also a favorite in stir fries, but may need a little extra time to cook. It helps to blanch them in boiling water for about a minute or two ahead of time.
Carrots are as much at home in savory dishes are they are in sweets. Most folks are familiar with carrot cake, but carrots can also be added to puddings, pies, cookies, and even ice cream.
The carrot’s strongest affinities are for butter, brown sugar, celery, ginger, maple syrup, onion, and orange, but it also pairs nicely with fresh herbs like dill, parsley and tarragon, and spices such as cinnamon and coriander and cumin. It is a natural accompaniment for roasted meets, particularly beef.