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Orange Crush

Carrots deserve a fresh look as the weather warms.



With spring in the air, the first tiny carrots of the growing season, tender and sweet, can be found in markets. By mid-summer, local farms will harvest full-size carrots in abundance. Yet what we consider carrots’ primary characteristics—a bright-orange color and a rich sweetness that becomes more pronounced with cooking—are recent developments for this ancient root.

The first carrots originated in Afghanistan more than 5,000 years ago and had a dark, reddish-purple hue and yellow core. This variety, still eaten today in parts of Asia, never gained popularity here or in Europe; its water-soluble pigments bleed during cooking to turn food a murky purplish-black.

The familiar orange carrot we rely on was developed in Holland in the 17th century, a hybrid of several varieties: white carrots, which the ancient Greeks and Romans used in love potions and medicines rather than for everyday cooking; wild carrots, which were not eaten but instead grown in ornamental gardens as far back as the eighth century B.C.; and pale-yellow carrots, which date back to medieval times in the Mediterranean and had a pronounced bitterness.

For healthy eyes and skin, we need at least 5,000 IUs (international units) of vitamin A each day. One cup of carrots has more than four times the daily requirement.

The orange carrot improved upon its cousins by offering increased sweetness and lots of carotene, which the body translates into vitamin A (essential for healthy skin and eyesight). Also, because carotene contains oil-soluble pigments, orange carrots don’t bleed into water-based dishes and instead maintain their hue to brighten soups and stews.

Given these advantages, it’s no wonder that orange carrots quickly dominated other varieties or that they were embraced by cooks around the world. In Morocco, carrots are spiced with cumin, paprika, cinnamon and cayenne in piquant salads; in Indonesia, they’re blanched and splashed with vibrant coconut-lime dressing.

Cooks here are likely to follow European traditions of braising or roasting carrots—heat weakens the root’s strong cell walls and frees the sugars to be tasted. Because of their natural sweetness, carrots are popular in desserts as well as in savory dishes. In Iran, there’s rice pudding with shredded carrots; in India, halwa is a treat similar to fudge; and here, carrot cake is a favorite.

Eating raw carrots was virtually unknown until the 20th century, but today the majority of carrots is consumed this way. Whether you prefer carrots raw, fresh and crunchy, or slow-cooked until they are sweetly caramelized and fork-tender, they provide great inspiration for bringing the fresh colors and flavors of spring into your kitchen.  


Taking Root

The tiny early-spring carrots in well-stocked produce sections this month are a treat but not a local one; farms in our region start to harvest carrots in late June or July. A great way to bring them home is to sign up for a community-supported agriculture service (commonly called C.S.A.), which delivers produce to you, like the one offered by Kretschmann Farm. (Visit kretschmannfarm.com for details about its C.S.A.; sign-up continues through the beginning of May.) This 80-acre organic farm located near Zelienople, about 35 miles north of the city, grows several varieties of carrots. I spoke with Don Kretschmann, the owner, to find out more about growing, storing and enjoying them.

Orange All Over

There are purple and even white carrots, but they are mainly novelties. For the sweet carrot taste we all know and love—and a whopping dose of healthy carotene—orange carrots are your best bet. The most common orange variety is Imperator, which has a classic, long, narrow carrot shape. Kretschmann says other orange carrots that grow well here and taste delicious include: any type of Nantes carrot, a variety that matures more quickly than Imperator and has a reputation as the sweetest and Chantenay, a tasty cone-shaped carrot that’s easier to remove from the heavy clay-laced soils in our region because it doesn’t have long, narrow tips that can break off easily during harvest.

Let it Grow

Carrots are easy and rewarding to grow in the garden. There’s still plenty of time to sow your own and harvest them in mid- to late summer. Just be sure to harvest them before they reach 1 inch in diameter to prevent them from developing an unpleasant woody flavor.
If you end up with a bumper crop, it’s no problem—they are great keepers.  Kretschmann has a cheap, easy approach to carrot storage: In the fall, he breaks up some dry leaves and packs the carrots in them (next to each other but not touching). Stored in a chilly spot such as the basement, garage or porch, where they won’t freeze, his carrots keep well from October to March.

In the Kitchen

Full-size carrots with the green tops left on have an appealing just-from-the-garden look—but for storage, always remove the greenery. Shop for carrots that are firm, crisp and unblemished; if the tops are still attached, the foliage should be bright green, never wilted or blackened. Use tiny and tender new carrots right away or store larger ones for at least a week.
If you are using older carrots that have a tough core, quarter them and remove the core. Much of the flavor of carrots resides in the skin, so don’t peel tender new carrots at all before cooking; with larger carrots, use a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler to remove the thinnest possible layer of peel.


Glazed Carrots with Orange and Fresh Ginger

Serves 4                                                                                                                              

Spicy fresh ginger and tart-sweet orange give classic glazed carrots a new spin in this easy side dish, which pairs especially well with roast chicken. 
 

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of canola oil over medium-high heat. Add 1 pound of carrots peeled and cut into 1-inch lengths (halved if thick). Add 1/2 cup of chicken broth (water can be substituted), 1/4 teaspoon finely grated orange zest (preferably organic), 1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice and a 1-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger cut into thin matchsticks.

Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until tender but still crisp, about 8 minutes. Uncover and cook over medium-high heat until carrots are tender and liquid is syrupy, about 8 or 9 minutes (only a small amount of liquid should remain). Remove skillet from heat, add 1 tablespoon unsalted butter and stir until melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
 


 

During Elizabethan times in England, the ferny foliage of carrot tops was used to decorate ladies’ hair and hats. 

Yeah, Baby

Don’t be fooled by the term “baby carrot”—these aren’t underage veggies. The smooth, appealingly uniform 2-inch minis are actually carved from mature carrots. In fact, the now-familiar snack wasn’t invented until 1986 when a California farmer named Mike Yurosek tired of tossing away perfectly good large carrots because of minor physical imperfections.

Knowing that his long carrots were processed for freezing at plants that cut them into cubes, coins and minis, he wondered about giving the same treatment to fresh carrots. The idea turned out to be genius.

At first, he cut the carrots into smaller pieces by hand but decided to save time by buying an industrial green-bean cutter to cut larger carrots into 2-inch pieces (today, this is the standard size for a baby carrot). His next step was to use an industrial potato peeler to remove the peel and smooth the edges. It wasn’t long before the grocery stores he supplied began asking only for his bagged miniature carrots—and voilà!—a healthy new snack trend was born. 

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