Carrots are viewed by many as the workhorse of the vegetable drawer, a reliable stalwart that’s tasty enough, but not culinarily exciting. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This sweet and flavoursome root vegetable can be enjoyed in many dazzling ways: raw and cooked, in sweet and savoury dishes, as a hero ingredient or a discrete supporting act.
Carrots are best known for being orange but, in fact, they were originally purple. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Dutch growers developed orange carrots as part of a project to improve their quality. These days, purple ‘heritage’ carrots are highly prized and widely available, along with red, white and yellow cultivars.
Carrots vary widely in their sweetness and flavour, but are generally known for their pine/parsley notes, and a certain woodiness. If you want to encourage their flavour to flourish, pair carrots with harmonious ingredients and flavours. Carrots love spice: star anise, cumin, cardamom and cinnamon are particular favourites. They also love nuts and seeds, such as hazelnuts, walnuts and peanuts. Most carrots have an innate sweetness, and this feature marries well with other sweet fruit and veg such as apple, sweet potato, oranges and dried fruit.
It’s important to wash carrots well and scrub them thoroughly before use; scrape or peel off the skin if you like, but if they’re well-scrubbed, no-one will notice if you leave the skin on. Carrots last longest if you store them in the crisper drawer of your fridge, ideally with the green tops still attached.
If you can find them, try sweet and delicious Nantes carrots, an heirloom variety developed in France and popular in the late 1800s for being crunchy yet tender, and for their mild sweet taste. Alternatively, look out for the small, stout and deeply delicious Chantenay variety.
Carrots make delicious scoops for aioli and other dips, of course, but if you want to use raw carrots in fancier way than crudites, try the classic French salade de carottes râpée (grated carrot salad). Very finely grate your carrots and toss with a dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, Dijon mustard, honey or sugar and some chopped fresh herbs like parsley, tarragon or chives. Sometimes a little orange juice is added. Alternatively, finely dice your carrots and add to a chopped salad. Don’t forget that raw carrots are terrific for juicing, and provide gentle sweetness in smoothies made from green vegetables.
Roasting carrots magnifies their sweetness and brings out their gently woody flavour and is one of the finest ways to cook them. Toss with olive oil spiked with spices like cinnamon, cumin, cardamom or coriander, and roast in a medium oven whole (or halved lengthways if very large). Carrots roasted this way are absolutely delicious serviced with garlicky yoghurt and sprinkled with toasted seeds or nuts: try hazelnuts or pumpkin seeds. You could also serve the roasted carrots with a chunky green sauce spooned over. Simply blitz the green tops of the carrots with hazelnuts, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. It’s not only delicious but saves you wasting the carrot tops.
Carrots have a deep affinity with honey, which gives them an appealing and tasty burnished colour and glaze when roasted. Toss the carrots in melted butter, olive oil and honey and roast until tender as before. Or chop and sauté gently with butter, olive oil and honey. Season well and serve with chopped parsley.
Carrots make a lovely soup – simply roast them as above and blitz until smooth with a good vegetable or chicken stock. Or sauté along with some chopped onion and add the stock. Either way, sprinkle in some ground spices (ground star anise, coriander, garam masala or even curry powder are all lovely), season to taste and blitz until smooth. A swirl of crème fraiche works beautifully as a contrast to the sweetness of the carrots.
Don’t forget carrots are a lovely addition to mash – and a nutritious one, too, as they’re busting with good stuff, notably vitamin A. Just simmer in boiling salted water until very tender, and mash with swede, parsnip, squash and/or potatoes.
Carrots are deeply delicious in cakes – you can add a finely grated handful to many cake and muffin recipes (except those with a lighter, airier crumb such as Victoria sponges). Don’t forget when making a traditional carrot cake to include flavourings that carrots most adore – spices (cardamom, cinnamon and ground star anise), nuts (walnuts are spectacular) and grated orange zest.
Carrots pair perfectly with parsley, cinnamon, star anise, coriander (ground and fresh), honey, nuts, orange zest and juice.
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