Sat, Apr 18, 2015 - Page 12 News List

The mighty carrot

Carrots are such a common vegetable that they are often overlooked, but they are very versatile and can even be used in desserts

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Carrot cup cakes provide a good dose of carrot in a form that kids just can’t say no to.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Carrots are one of our most basic vegetables. They were a perennial annoyance in the standard meat and three veg of my childhood, and like many other vegetables, the boiled carrot became a symbol of the parental gastronomic tyranny. Years of looking on carrots with disdain followed. Their herby undertones seemed no more than an acrid note in an otherwise largely flavorless sodden lump, and I had no time for claims that carrots would improve my eyesight. The reconciliation took many years, but these days, with homegrown carrots and a better understanding of how to bring out the their abundant flavors, they have become something to enjoy rather than just a dutiful nod to healthy eating.

Carrots belong to the Umbelliferae family, and are related to vegetables and herbs such as parsnips, fennel, parsley, anise, caraway, cumin and dill. Indeed, according to The Penguin Companion to Food, for much of the carrot’s history it was regarded as an herb rather than a vegetable, and was harvested for its leaves and seeds.

Carrot tops, the green part of carrots, are still eaten by some, but have largely been as compost or animal feed, despite being both nutritious and tasty if properly prepared.

The carrots we eat these days are in fact the taproot of the carrot plant, the largest part of the root system. These days, we rarely see any other than orange colored carrots, but in fact this vegetable comes in a variety of colors including white, yellow and purple, with the last being one of the oldest varieties, and which are still commonly cultivated in Central Asia.

It is generally accepted that a big dose of the nutritional value of carrots is stored just under the skin, and much of this gets shaved away when you peel. Of course, for non-organic carrots, the skin also holds the highest levels of pesticide residue. The best solution is to buy organic or grow your own, so that you can use the whole unpeeled carrot without worry. Unpeeled carrots also seem to taste better, but that might just be the food snob in me speaking.

One can go on and on about the nutritional benefits of carrots, and a host of studies are available to show how they do amazing things for the human body, ranging from preventing cardiovascular disease to reducing the risk of glaucoma.

Carrots are ridiculously easy to use, with the added advantage of being able to be eaten raw, so you can just crunch on a carrot, or grate it up and put it in a salad. That said, there are suggestions that one of the carrot’s key nutrients, beta-carotene, becomes more easily accessible to your body after cooking. And it is a snap to cook. Traditionally boiled, steaming now seems to be the favored means of preparation.

Carrots have quite a high sugar content and this natural sweetness can be emphasized by just the tiniest pinch of sugar when cooking, or by caramelizing the vegetable’s natural sugars with butter or oil. My own favorite preparation is to boil/steam the carrots in a mixture of melted butter, water and garlic, with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar using a covered pot until most of the liquid has been cooked away, then sprinkling with a generous amount of flat-leaf parsley before serving. Indeed carrots can benefit greatly by the addition of many of their Umbelliferae relatives when being prepared in this simple fashion, and a sprinkle of fennel or cumin also gives carrots a huge lift.

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