Vegetables rarely have such an image problem as carrots. Most people consider them plain and everyday, but they are used in a multitude of dishes and are essential to many. Carrots can be used in almost every stage of a meal - from an appetizer of crudités, to soups, sauces, braises, casseroles, salads and even dessert! Lets not forget the fabulous carrot cake.
Information is slightly conflicting in regards to the carrots area of origin - some sources hypothesize central Asia, more specifically Afghanistan, while others claim the vegetable is native to North Africa. What is certain is that carrots and their eyesight enhancing properties were known to the Greeks and Romans, yet they declined to plant them on any notable scale, considering them to be an inferior vegetable.
Carrots known to the ancients would barely be recognizable today. The original root vegetables were loaded with anthocyanin, the same pigment that makes blueberries blue. Old time carrots came in an alarming array or colours from red to purple to black. In the Sixteenth Century an anthocyanin-less and pale yellow strain of carrots appeared in Europe and immediately gained favour because they did not taint the colour of soups and sauces like other carrots. During the Seventeenth Century in Holland the familiar orange carrot we know today was first grown, giving explanation to why baby carrots are sometimes sold as Dutch carrots.
Without the anthocyanin pigment, the carotene present in carrots came to the fore, causing them to be the vivid orange we know today. Carotene is converted to Vitamin A by the body and A vitamins are great for your eyesight - the Greeks and Romans were right after all, they just didn't know why.
Like many root vegetables, carrots have an interesting anatomy. When you cut a carrot in half you will notice that there is a pale central section surrounded by a deeper coloured exterior. There is an easy explanation behind this - the outside is storage area for nutrients used by the plant, while the inner section is simply vascular tissue.
Carrots tend to be more popular in Europe than other parts of the world and nowhere so much as in France. The French grow a fabulous variety of carrots with enticing names such as grelot, chatenay and nantiase. They vary in shape and size from a small marble up to the large elongated carrots we are familiar with.
If you search hard enough, such as in growers markets, you may find providores selling interesting heirloom and hybrid carrot varieties. Some of these possess anthocyanin and have an attractive orange and purple variegation.
Carrots are very sugar-dense; in fact at about 6 or 7% they are second only to beetroot as the sweetest vegetable. This sweetness makes them indispensable to all sorts of dishes - sweet and savoury. They are pretty much essential to all stocks, vegetable, chicken, veal, fish and shellfish. Vegetable bases such as sofritto and brunoise would be virtually unimaginable without their presence. Carrots also puree wonderfully, and when prepared in such a manner are sweet canvases on which exotic spices can be layered. Turkish and Lebanese cooks make wonderful carrot purees that are redolent with garlic, cumin and coriander seed. Here is my version of this unusual and tasty dip. Simply serve with some flatbread for a yummy dinner party starter.
Carrot, mint and garlic dip
500 gm (1 lb) carrots
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp ground cumin
1 Tbs ground coriander (cilantro)
2 tsp sumac (optional)
2 Tbs olive oil
6 mint leaves
1 Tbs muscatels, raisins or sultanas
1 Tbs pine nuts
Freshly ground black pepper
Wash the carrots and cut of the stem end. Scrape them if they are a little dirty. Cut into 5 cm chunks and place in a saucepan with the garlic and some sea salt. Cover with water then simmer until they are tender - this will take 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the carrots.
Drain away the water, reserving around 1/4 of a cup. Place the carrots in a food processor with all the ingredients except the muscatels and pine nuts. Whizz up until they are finely pureed, using a little of the reserved cooking water to get the consistency right. You are looking for something similar to hummus.
Transfer the dip to a serving bowl and scatter over the muscatels and pine nuts. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and grind over some black pepper.