Underground Royalty

When did you last taste a carrot so sugar-sweet and richly flavored it seemed almost a different vegetable? When was the last time you pulled from the earth a fat round carrot no bigger than the tip of your thumb? When did you bite into a carrot so richly orange it was almost scarlet? And when did you munch on a single carrot that gave you more Vitamin A than the recommended minimum daily allowance?

The problem with carrots raised for mass marketing is that they're selected for one quality: They can be pulled and processed by a machine without breaking. By and large, they're Imperator types--handsome extra-strong roots, but flavor is not on their resume.

The royalty of carrotdom are crisp rich orange Nantes types, long and straight with squarish tips, no core and glorious flavor. Developed in the 19th Century in France, Nantes are the carrots in French markets today. Since Nantes are too fragile for machine harvesting, to taste them in this country you must grow them yourself.

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Nantes are at least 5 1/2 inches long, but there's delight and good flavor in baby carrots--skinny and three inches long, or a fat inch around. These are not prematurely picked Nantes or Imperators, but actual types of carrots that are the easiest to grow and fastest to mature.

You can find carrots called "babies" in most markets, but unless you bought them from an honest farmer, they're probably what are known in the trade as "grinder baby carrots." Slender carrots pulled from the earth at six inches long, they're then cut in half and shaped at both ends to appear as two. Counterfeits.

The real things are slender three-inch cultivars such as Little Finger, Minicor and Baby Sweet Hybrid, and small beet-shaped carrots, the most noteworthy these days being Thumbelina, tender and sweet and ranging in size from grape to plum.

Growing carrots takes attention. The seeds are fine; they germinate slowly and irregularly and must never be allowed to dry out. A cover of burlap kept moist until they germinate is good insurance.

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The trick to growing carrots effortlessly is to sow them so you don't have to thin them, but close enough so their roots will crowd out--and leaves will shade out--weeds. That's from two to four inches apart, depending on the thickness of the carrots. Stokes Seeds offers pelleted carrot seeds, which helps keep seeds moist while germinating and makes it easier to sow thinly. Otherwise, mix seeds with builder's sand (or raw Cream of Wheat) for easy visibility and handling. Sow seeds every few weeks during the season for an abundant and continuous supply.

Carrots need at least five hours of sun a day and normal amounts of water. Their ferny leaves (all you see) make a lovely addition to the mixed border, although they'll leave a bare space when you pull them up, so consider that in your plan.

The ideal carrot soil is sandy loam, or at least something friable and well-draining. If your soil is clay or filled with rocks and you're feeling lazy, grow baby carrots in a foot-deep container filled with a good-quality soilless mix.

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But if your soil is inhospitable to carrots and you feel energetic, build a raised bed for them. Make a box with 10-inch-wide planks and fill with the closest thing you can get to sandy loam. The problem with adding organic amendments to clay soil for growing carrots is that materials high in nitrogen--compost, rotted manure and such--will make the carrots hairy and cause them to fork. It's best to work these amendments somewhere else and grow carrots there next year. But it's worth trying Red Cored Chantenay, Danvers Halflong and Thumbelina on problem soils.

To grow long carrots in hospitable soil, you must dig it to a fine tilth a foot deep, taking out all rocks. I've done this a few times, but I'd rather grow baby carrots and prepare the soil just six or eight inches down. It is true that the deeper the soil, the better the carrots, no matter what size.

These days, I also concentrate on the carrots rich in Vitamin A: A-Plus Hybrid is remarkably rich in the vitamin, and Sweetness Hybrid has both beta carotene (precursor of Vitamin A) and extra sweet flavor. Tastier than a pill.

Baby-type carrots--except for Baby Spike and Thumbelina--must be harvested at the length given in the catalogue. Should the weather turn hot or should the carrots be stressed any other way, these delicacies grow too big too fast and lose their quality. You won't know whether the carrot is ready to harvest until you've pulled it up, and once you've pulled it up, there's no setting it back in the soil. The solution? On a marker at each patch note its name and expected date of harvest--that way, none will be lost to bumbling.

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Other varieties store well in the ground without losing too much quality, although they won't have the texture and flavor of those dug at their appropriate time. I've even discovered carrots a year after sowing and although they were hairy, they were still sweet. Berlicummers are the best keepers. Store carrots in a cool, dark place with good circulation of air.

If you live in the low desert, you can sow carrots now--time to plant is from early autumn through mid-winter. But generally hereabouts, carrots are sown from mid-winter through early autumn. In the high desert, sow late winter and early spring, then again in early autumn. In the mountains, sow mid-spring through late summer. Along the coast, sow late winter through mid-spring. Baby carrots are ready in less than two months; bigger ones take a couple of weeks longer.

Sources:

Berlicummer, Danvers Half-long, Sweetness Hybrid: William Dam Seeds, P.O. Box 8400, Dundas, Ont., Canada L9H 6M1; A-Plus Hybrid: Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001; Little Finger, Red Cored Chantenay: Pinetree Garden Seeds, Box 300, New Gloucester, Me. 04260; Minicor, Baby Sweet Hybrid, Scarlet Nantes: Stokes Seeds, P.O. Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240-0548. Everybody offers Thumbelina.

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Don't peel carrots; you'll lose nourishment and flavor. To be convinced, remove a strip of skin with a vegetable peeler and taste--you'll be amazed at the depth of flavor. Do scrub carrots well, however, just before cooking.

These gin-baked carrots are superb for entertaining. Gin itself is flavored with piney-tasting juniper berries, but most of the time, the juniper cooks away, leaving a hint of itself and enhanced flavor in the dish--a dashing catalyst.

For example, add a handful of finely chopped fresh leaves of chervil, tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, thyme, sage, mint, cilantro, lovage, celery, fennel or dill. Try a tablespoon of finely shredded fresh ginger root. Sprinkle over a rounded teaspoon of fennel, caraway, dill, celery, sesame or nigella seeds. Add a veil of ground mace, nutmeg or coriander, or Chinese five-spice, curry powder or chili powder.

CARROTS IN GIN

1 3/4 to 2 pounds tender young carrots, preferably about 1 1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide (larger carrots can be used), scrubbed but not peeled

1/2 cup gin, or water

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into very thin slices

1/2 cup water

Fresh herbs to taste

Leave baby carrots whole, trimming stem ends. To make baby-size pieces from large carrots, if thick, slice in quarters lengthwise to point where carrot is 1/2 inch wide. Cut on diagonal to make pieces 1 1/2 inches long. If desired, use vegetable peeler to round edges of quartered pieces. You will need 7 cups.

Turn carrots into 13x9-inch baking dish or 3-quart dish in which carrots can be no more than 1 inch deep. Add gin, salt, sugar and pepper to taste. Distribute flakes of butter over top, then pour over water. Cover tightly with foil (shiny side down) and bake in center of 400-degree oven until carrots test tender with thin skewer, about 40 minutes for babies and 50 minutes for older carrots. If convenient, stir carrots once while baking. Remove from oven and continue, or refrigerate until ready to serve.

To finish, turn contents of baking dish into broad, heavy skillet. Cook over highest heat, stirring frequently with wooden spoon, until all liquid has evaporated, butter remains and carrots are shiny. Adjust seasonings to taste. Add fresh herbs to taste. Turn into hot serving dish. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

127 calories; 330 mg sodium; 15 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 1.03 grams fiber.

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