Carrots barely merit description, so familiar are they to almost everyone’s eye, but I’ll describe them anyway: a white or yellow or purple or, yes, orange root with round shoulders and a long tapering body that tastes sweeter than a vegetable has a right to. So sweet that carrots can be the principal ingredient of cakes—unless it’s your typical grocery store root, which most of us must eat if we want to eat carrots. These might be long orange logs in humid plastic sacks or clammy “baby” sized stumps, often woody or even bitter because they’re bred for easy shipping and not for flavor, or because they sat too long in storage.
Can you look at a carrot to know if it is sweet? No, you cannot, says Isaac Jahns of Big Sage Organics. He grows rainbow carrots on his family’s farm in Othello, and tells me that if I want to be a weirdo about it, I can snap a carrot open in the produce aisle to determine its quality. A tender, sweet, appropriately aged carrot won’t have a defined circular core, he says. The best carrots are fall and winter carrots that, thanks to a few light frosts, have converted some of their starches into sugars. Carrots picked in hot weather won’t be as sweet. Feathery green tops do not help carrots maintain their flavor in storage—in fact, carrots can become rubbery faster if those tops are left on too long—but we can use them to help judge the carrot’s age. If they’re fresh, so is the carrot. Meanwhile, “a carrot in a bag is anyone’s guess,” says Jahns.
They originated, probably, in Afghanistan, and may or may not be descended from wild carrots, depending on which source you consult. Wild carrots, remember, are a white root known as Queen Anne’s lace, a European plant whose luxuriant umbels unfurl all over the US each summer. Domesticated carrots would flower like Queen Anne’s lace if we didn’t yank them from the ground before they had the chance to bolt. Their umbrella-shaped flowers indicate membership in the umbellifer family, to which parsley, cilantro, dill, cumin, and fennel also belong. All of these plants taste delicious together. Though, to my mind, the mark of a truly great carrot is the degree to which it can be eaten alone.
The heaviest carrot was twenty-two pounds, seven ounces, the size of two or three healthy human newborns. The longest carrot was 20 feet and 5.9 inches, most of which was a taproot as narrow as a thread. PETA uses a carrot as a mascot. “Eat veggies, not friends,” they say. “Carrot” is a way to describe the reward portion of “carrot and stick,” where metaphorical carrots are used to positively reinforce certain behaviors (if you’re training a horse, use literal carrots). “Legends of root plants often emphasize the consequences of pulling these plants out of the ground,” writes Tamra Andrews in Nectar and Ambrosia: an Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology. Despite the carrot’s mythic association with dark underworlds, they will not help you see in the dark. That’s a lie concocted by British propagandists in WWII to explain why their pilots, who were using secret radar technology, were so good at shooting German planes at night. The body does convert beta carotene into vitamin A, which does help vision. You’ll know when you’ve eaten too many carrots if your skin turns orange, a phenomenon called carotenemia. Carrots are no doubt a more salubrious way to obtain an orange glow than the tanning beds of our forty-fifth president. If someone calls you carrottop, you probably have bright red hair (though if we’re talking actual carrot colors, someone with purple or yellow or white hair could just as easily claim the name). The degree to which comedian Carrot Top has had an improbably long shelf life due to his stage name is unknown.
Carrots were introduced to the Americas by colonists and became popular with truck farmers by the end of the colonial period. They were then, as they are now, easy to grow, transport, and store, all of which translates into much-needed cashflow for farmers. “That’s our winter income,” says Dan Sproule of Full Bushel Farm near Medical Lake. By the end of the year, he says, “we try to get fifteen thousand to twenty thousand pounds of carrots in our coolers.” When I talked to Sproule in January, he’d just brought his last load to area grocery stores. By the time you read this, all of those carrots will be gone.
How does one find great carrots in the Inland Northwest in the dead of winter, when all our farmers’ markets are closed? Our easiest and most delicious bet is LINC Foods, a co-op distributor that connects customers to high quality produce grown within 250 miles of Spokane (the LINC box subscription is a year-round treasure trove of produce—sign up at lincfoods.com). Or grow them yourself. Both Sproule and Jahns advise home gardeners to plant in soil that’s somewhat loose at least eight inches down, and to be careful about how close you plant each tiny carrot seed. Using pelleted seed can help with spacing. Merciless thinning also works. To grow a good-sized carrot, make sure there is an inch between each sprout, “about the width of a finger,” Jahns says. Sproule’s favored carrot varieties for growing in the Inland Northwest spring and summer are Mokum and Yaya. For fall harvests, try Dolciva and Bolero.
Carrot salad is an internationally popular side dish that starts with a bed of shaved, grated, or julienned carrots and adds flavors according to local taste. David Leibovitz recommends a French-style carrot salad with lemon, mustard, and tarragon; palates raised in the southern US may prefer mayo and raisins in theirs. Morkovcha koreyska is a Russian-Korean carrot salad with paprika, garlic, and hot peppers that was originally made by the ethnic Koreans that Stalin forcibly removed to the Soviet Union’s western hinterlands. Some descriptions of this dish call it “lightly fermented,” which can be achieved by leaving it at room temperature with the vegetables tamped beneath their juice for one to three days, until the salad lightly bubbles. Fresh or fermented, this sweet and spicy salad is an addictive side dish. For more serving ideas, check out Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking by Bonnie Frumkin Morales and Deena Prichep.
1/3 cup olive oil
½ onion thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
¼ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
3 tablespoons white vinegar
2 teaspoons sambal oelek chili paste
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
2 pounds carrots
¼ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
In a sauté pan, heat the oil on medium and cook the onion until it is soft and starting to brown, about five minutes. Remove from heat and add the garlic, paprika, coriander, and black pepper.
Stir to combine. Then add the vinegar, sambal oelek, salt, and sugar, and stir again. Let the mixture cool while you peel and shred the carrots (the wide-holed side of a cheese grater will do this in a pinch). Mix the carrots with the oil, spices, and onions. Then add the cilantro, give the salad one more stir, and let it sit for an hour before serving.
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