Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Thing About Carrots

Last night I was making the simplest possible dinner, but of course daughter is eating off an entirely different menu--no salad for her--so I put on a pot of carrots to boil.

"No, Dad!" she screamed in horror.

"What's wrong?" I inquired.

"You know I don't like carrots!" she stormed.

"Since when do you not like carrots?"

"I mean, I don't like carrots cooked," she said in her most didactic tone. "I only like them raw. How many times do I have to tell you?"

She's awfully bossy for an 8-year-old, that daughter of ours. I just threw up my hands. So Mom stepped in, quickly drained off the carrots and we sat down to our dinner: potatoes smothered in coq au vin sauce, for us, potatoes not smothered in coq au vin sauce--and raw carrots--for daughter.

Truth is, I had originally thought of grating those carrots raw and turning them into a carrot salad. A mental picture of the salad--a little mayo, some raisins, a little curry powder--had flashed across the back of my brain pan for a nano-second. And that, for some reason, was enough to send me on a carrot jag from which I still have not fully recovered.

We plant a lot of carrots. In my usual fashion, I had to have one of every kind and my first efforts consisted of mixing all the carrot seeds together and sealing them in a paper envelope. A snipped off one corner of the envelope and whenever I needed to plant more carrots, I would simply remove the envelope from its place in the crisper drawer, pour some of the seed mix out of the snipped-off corner and scatter the seeds in the garden bed.

As you might imagine, I had some pretty ungainly growths of carrots. There were fat carrots, skinny carrots, thumb-sized mini-carrots, orange carrots, yellow carrots, red carrots. You could spot the yellow carrots from a distance: They sent up incredibly thick, robust foliage and seemed to grow twice as fast--and big--as the other varieties.

But it turns out no matter what color or which size, carrots all taste pretty much the same. I am starting to think variety is not as important as the seed catalogues would have you believe. Maybe focusing on making really good soil for the carrots, planting them on a regular schedule and harvesting them before they get woody and tough would be a better use of my time.

We don't give carrots much thought, yet they are so important to so much of what we cook. Onions are ubiquitous (can you imagine cooking without onions?) Carrots come in close behind. Two days ago I made a split pea soup. The soup would not have been complete--would have been terribly lacking--without onions and carrots. It cooked for a long time, that soup, and I could not help admiring the way the carrots held their shape--cut into little dice--to the very end of the cooking process. I scopped one up with a spoon and even after four hours on the stove it still had the sweet, fresh taste of carrot, as if I'd just pulled it out of the garden.

Yesterday I made a pasta sauce with ground pork. After the pork browned, diced onion and carrot went into the pot. You don't always see carrot in pasta sauce. But I wanted this one to have it. Maybe I've just had carrots on the brain. But somehow a sauce with friendly bits of carrots in it puts a smile on my face, as if the garden were speaking to me through my pasta.

Yes, we take carrots too much for granted. We toss them into the mix of our roasted root vegetables with hardly a second thought. We dice them up for our mire poix as if they were just another aromatic. We unconsciously slice them on an angle for a stand-alone side dish or as a vegetable buddy for our beef stew, knowing but not consciously acknowledging how handsome they are sliced just so, and how pathetic they would look cut into silly little rounds.

But now that it is January, the worst that could happen has come to pass: There are no more carrots in the garden. I actually had to buy some in the store. In fact, I had harvested all of our carrots before winter set in, cooked them and froze them in individual bundles. We have bags of sliced carrots the daughter will not eat.

I see carrots in my future. But you know what? I'm not complaining.


Joanna said...

My children are the same - love carrots raw, won't touch them cooked as a side (although they will eat them cooked into, say, a bolognaise)

I've never managed to grow a carrot here because the soil is so heavy, but this is the year of the carrot, in raised beds with light soil. Very interested to read that the variety doesn't really matter - I'll go for tough and plentiful, in that case


Ali said...

So given your carrot variety discovery, what variety will you be planting next spring? I am currently oogling over the descriptions of Atomic Red, Purple Haze, and yellow something or other in my Fedco catalog -- maybe you can help rein in my rainbow impulses?

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, I think raised beds are an excellent idea for root vegetables such as carrots. I planted carrots at some newly built raised beds at the Washington Youth Garden last year, but the deer ate the foliage, so the carrots never really matured.

Ali, I'm certainly no expert on carrots. I grew some burgunday carrots this year but was disappointed to note that when you peeled them, the burgunday went into the compost while the carrot inside was the usual orange. Great for a farmers market display, maybe. Otherwise, I didn't quite see the point. I have not grown some of the other varieties that claim to have red or "deep orange" interiors.

I like the yellow varieties, though I think you need to plant them separately. They seem to be on their own schedule. As for other carrots, I will probably plant Danvers and maybe Long Orange Improved. Both are heirloom varieties (I try to stick with heirlooms) and more like the all-purpose carrots we are used to.

Divina said...

Here in Tuscany we always use carrots in our ragu!

The trinity of carrot, red onion and celery is the base of all slow cooked sauces and stews.
The secret here is to let them slow cook until they start to carmelize and brings out all the sweetness.

Bon Appetito!

grace said...

yellow carrots? i have a feeling my son will like those. after all he gobbles up the yellow cherry tomatoes then emphatically tells me when i show him red cherry tomatoes, "i don't LIKE tomatoes!." and he's no where close to 8-years-old...

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

We planted yellow carrots last year, in old half whisky barrels. Lots of people said to plant them higher up to avoid carrot fly. Apparently carrot fly cant? don't? fly above a certain height.. Who knows if there is any truth in that. We didn't thin them out enough so we ended up with tiny carrots but they were delicious.

My youngest has a bit of a thing about raw carrots, he steals them from the fridge and we find the ends all over the place. I wrote about it once. Why hide it? It's not as if I'm going to tell him off for eating carrot. Stealing and being sneaky maybe!

Great Big veg challenge said...

I feel the cold wind of fussy eating blowing through your kitchen....and I sympathise!

Ed Bruske said...

divina, apparently there are still many things to learn about Italian sauce making. I take it to mean you caramelize the aromatics before you add the meat, tomatoes, etc?

Grace, do try yellow carrots. You might have to go on-line for the seeds. You can plant them in a big flower pot.

Amanda, my wife says she used to start carrots in a flower pot, then transplant the whole thing into the garden. What we find littered around the house mostly is popcorn (between the sofa cushions) and candy wrappers.

Charlotte, we are dealing with a complicated heirarchy of fussiness. We are trying to remain firm in our refusal to become short-order cooks at dinner time with an 8-year-old ordering a la carte. But some of the things my wife and I enjoy are just out of the question for the daughter. I do believe she becomes less fussy with age. We have such fond memories of the 2-year-old who would eat anything.