Thanks to Bugs Bunny and lunch boxes everywhere, carrots have enjoyed a reputation as one of the most popular, though pedestrian, vegetables.
Lately, enterprising small farmers have been attempting to elevate our idea of carrots by cultivating unusual and antique varieties. Not content to just grow cookie-cutter, uniform-sized, carrot-shaped and carrot-colored carrots, these guys are turning customers and chefs on to deep maroon, pale yellow and delicate white carrots.
Farmer Tom Palley, of Covelo Organic Fruits & Vegetables, grows Scarlet Nantes, a variety that, despite its name, has a bright orange color.
"They're a large, rounded, juicy, heavy carrot -- a quarter to a half a pound is the ideal size," says Palley. "I love them raw because they're so sweet."
Paul Underhill of Terra Firma Farm grows organic Nantes and Imperator carrots.
"The Nantes have a higher water content, so they tend to make a less concentrated soup or juice, and don't hold their shape when cooked," says Underhill. "But they're crisper and have a more tender core than the Imperators, which are long, thin, tapered carrots.
"I use (Imperators) for juicing, because they're more dense. They also caramelize better and hold their shape well, so I use them for roasting."
Other popular carrot varieties include Chantenays, which resemble thicker Imperators, and tiny, round varieties the size of golf balls.
Maroon carrots are a fairly recent hybrid, says Bill Fujimoto of Berkeley's Monterey Market. "The ones I sell are proprietary carrots from Texas, so the name of the variety depends on who owns the seed. Mine are sold under the name 'carrotte bordeaux.'"
Tres chic. But even without the snob appeal of such a name, maroon carrots have plenty of other merits. Local chef Mike Tusk likes to simply roast them. "They've got a very good, rich, sweet flavor, and hold their color when cooked," he says.
Fujimoto agrees. "The maroons taste really good, and as long as you don't boil or overcook them, they'll keep their color and add flavor and visual appeal to your dish, especially when paired with orange carrots for contrast."
Occasionally, white or yellow carrots will turn up at the farmers' market or specialty stores such as Monterey Market. White carrots, says Fujimoto, are from antique seed stock. "The flavor can be a bit insipid in white varieties, I think because there's no pigment there to add any flavor complexities."
Orange carrots were first bred by the Dutch in the early 19th century. The characteristic hue is the result of beta carotene. In addition to being a rich resource of beta carotene, orange carrots have the highest vitamin A content of any vegetable.
Carrots are biennial, meaning the plants live for two growing seasons. Palley sows his carrots every two weeks from March through August, ensuring a continuous harvest until December.
"Carrots get sweeter when it gets colder," says Palley. "The freezing temperatures bring out the sugars in root vegetables."
Palley suggests that consumers avoid "pithy, hairy carrots. They'll have a tough core, because they're getting ready to bolt, or go to seed," he says.
Adds Underhill, "The big plus of newer hybrid varieties is that the pithiness is bred out of them, and they're slower bolting."
Most bulk carrots sold in grocery stores can be up to six months old, says Underhill. "Carrots keep very well in cold storage, but they still lose flavor and texture."
To ensure a fresh bunch, says Underhill, choose carrots that still have their leafy tops, and make sure the tops look green and fresh and the carrot looks bright and firm.
"Remove the tops as soon as you get home, because they draw water out of the root," he says. "If you buy them at the farmers' market, the farmer will generally remove the tops for you, because we use them for compost."
Speaking of recycling, ever buy those stubby little bagged "baby" carrots at the supermarket? "Those are actually whittled down mechanically from broken or cosmetically challenged carrots, the waste from which is used for juice," says Underhill. "They may not be the freshest or best tasting product, but it's very effective waste management."
Whatever size carrots you purchase, be sure to store them in ventilated plastic bags in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Carrots left exposed to open air will turn rubbery.
Carrots are available from the following growers: Terra Firma Farm, Berkeley and Marin farmers' markets; Covelo Organic Fruits & Vegetables, Berkeley farmers' market; Firme Farm, Berkeley farmers' market; Full Belly Farm, Berkeley and Palo Alto farmers' markets; Happy Boy Farms, Berkeley farmers' market.
CHILLED CARROT SOUP
WITH FINES HERBES MOUSSE
This recipe for sweet, silky carrot soup by chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry is a perfect reason to get out your peeler this holiday season. From Saveur magazine, May/June 2001.
For the soup:
3 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 1-inch rounds
2 1/2 cups fresh carrot juice
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon honey
Pinch curry powder
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and ground white pepper
For the mousse:
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 chive, finely chopped
1 small sprig parsley, minced
1 small sprig chervil, minced
1 small sprig tarragon, minced
For the soup: Put carrots, 11/4 cups carrot juice, butter, honey and curry into a medium pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until liquid has evaporated and carrots are very soft, about 1 hour. Add cream, increase heat to medium, and simmer for 3 minutes.
Puree carrot mixture and remaining 11/4 cups carrot juice in a blender. Pass soup through a fine sieve into a medium bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.
For the mousse: Whisk creme fraiche in a medium bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold in chives, parsley, chervil and tarragon.
Divide soup between 4 chilled bowls and place a spoonful of mousse in center of each bowl on top of soup. Serves 4.
Per Serving: 250 Calories; 17g Fat; 4g Protein; 24g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 57mg Cholesterol; 99mg Sodium.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org