Digging Carrots

Roots and all

diggingCarrots

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BEN FINK

For years I was trapped in the mentality that carrots’ primary role in my kitchen was as part of the tripod upon which many Italian dishes stand: carrots, onions and garlic. These aromatics are known as a “battuto” (which can include other ingredients as well, like celery and parsley; once cooked, the combo is called a “soffritto”). But then my local farmers’ market started selling beautiful carrots, bound by a piece of twine and topped with a head of feathery greens that cooked up impossibly tender and sweet: Hardly the working horse carrots that I used to buy in the grocery store.

It didn’t take long for me to move beyond the notion that carrots were supporting players in the kitchen and realize that they can and should be the stars. And not just the orange root but the glorious greens as well.

Carrots were cultivated as long ago as the 8th century BC, in Babylon, but Alan Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Food guesses they were cultivated not for the root but for the herby greens. (Carrots are members of the parsley family.) Which is ironic because, today, most people toss the greens. Not only are carrot greens edible, they’re delicious.

When buying carrots with their greens, look for bright, moist leaves. Avoid carrot roots that are rubbery or wrinkly. They should be very firm and smooth (bumps are OK, but avoid blemishes and cracks). Small, immature carrots are less flavorful than mature carrots, but slender, young carrots are best. Since, like beet greens, carrot greens pull moisture from the root, as soon as I get them in the kitchen I separate the greens from the root. The greens can be processed into Carrot Top Pesto right away, to be served with a piece of grilled meat, poultry or fish, and the carrots stored in a plastic bag in the fridge (but away from apples, which emit a chemical that can cause off-flavors in the carrots). If your carrots get soft or limp, you can resuscitate them in a bath of cold water for 10 to 20 minutes; and it is best to remove the cores of the old woody carrots, which can be tough.

Lately I have been braising carrots in a little homemade chicken or vegetable stock, white wine and butter, which is divine, and then making an addictive marinara sauce that is super sweet because of the inherent sugar content of the carrots. Indeed, carrots are excellent in dessert recipes. I make a sweet and sour Carrot Jam that is fantastic on a mozzarella sandwich and often add shredded carrots to muffin batters for flavor and texture.

And that’s just getting started. I pressure can carrots, which requires a pressure canner and some patience, to have on hand for quick soufflés, make clean-tasting slaws with shredded carrots and feta cheese, cook veal stew with nubby “Paris Market” cultivars, which are the short and round variety that are conveniently the same size as the hunks of meat, whip up creamy carrot soup, and of course, every once in a while, a glorious carrot cake, redolent with the spices carrots love: ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Now, when I go to the market I don’t buy carrots to make dinner.

I buy carrots to be dinner.

CARROTS AND EYESIGHT

The reason why it is said that carrots are good for your eyes is based on World War II propaganda released by the British Royal Air Force, which published a story saying that one of its fighter pilots could see so well in the dark due to his steady diet of carrots. Eating carrots won’t cure your myopia, but they do contain beta-carotene (it’s what colors carrots orange), which we metabolize into vitamin A, an important nutrient for eye health.

CARROT PRESERVING

Carrots have a low-acid pH between 5.88 and 6.40, way too alkaline for water bath processing unless you acidify. But honestly, there is nothing you can’t do with carrots. They make great pickles, which you can process in a water bath. You can preserve them in water in a pressure canner. You can freeze carrots by peeling and blanching in boiling water for 2 to 5 minutes depending on whether you are freezing pieces or whole carrots, and then pack into freezer bags. You can root cellar carrots (don’t wash: remove the greens but leave a stub a couple of inches long and pack in straw or moist sand). At 32ºF they will keep for about 6 months. And you can even dry carrots, which preserves both the color as well as the nutritional content. Boil for 4 minutes, and then dry at 135°F in your dehydrator until brittle.

RECIPES

Carrot Jam

Carrot Top Pesto

Flank Steak with Carrot Top Pesto

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