One of the great kitchen mysteries is why carrots are the anti-muse for so many contemporary chefs. These are among the most versatile vegetables ever cultivated but in too many cookbooks rarely seem to inspire anything more imaginative than the odd coulis. Even turnips get more creativity lavished upon them.
This time of year, the gap between Brussels sprouts and cauliflower in most recipe indexes is especially mystifying. Carrots are at their best -- sweet, crisp, brightly colored -- and can be the perfect side dish any (or every) night.
Maybe the fact that carrots are an essential component of mirepoix, the traditional foundation of stocks and braises in classic kitchens, deters chefs and recipe writers from getting wild and crazy with them as they do with less quotidian vegetables.
A more likely reason is that it is just hard to improve on the classics unless you eat carrots raw, which is why smart cooks look toward France for inspiration. The most amazing carrot ideas are waiting for rediscovery.
I find myself reaching for “60-Minute Gourmet” as often as possible to make carrots Vichy, Pierre Franey-style. A little sugar and salt, a bit of butter, some water and 30 minutes in a saucepan on low heat are all you need to braise and caramelize sliced carrots. It’s a perfect dish, the ideal example of how a classic becomes one.
Even more spectacular is Roger Verge’s interpretation of another French standard, which he calls carrots in chive cream. Matchstick-size batons are braised, then finished with a glaze of cream and lemon, and a showering of chives. It takes a little time to do the precise cutting, but it elevates carrots to dazzling for a dinner party. Though the lemon sounds as if it would curdle the cream, it adds a wonderfully surprising hit of piquancy.
My mom had a technique I thought was all her own -- slowly sauteing carrot sticks in fat until they turn dark, sweet and seriously caramelized, even without sugar -- but a French friend volunteered that she also uses it, with sliced onions added. Shallots are even better; either they or onions should be added about halfway through the cooking so that they caramelize in the same time.
Just melt a tablespoon of butter with an equal amount of peanut or vegetable oil in a skillet, add carrots cut into thin strips, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and cook on low heat, stirring steadily, until they almost char. It will take up to an hour, but that is time well invested. The slow cooking concentrates the deep orange flavor of carrots.
(I’ve repeatedly tried cooking carrots in the oven to get the same effect, but they do not roast evenly and tend to burn before they sweeten. The other caveat is that you need to start with two or three times as many carrots as you think you will need, because they cook way down.)
CARROT puree is a natural, from before there were blenders, but it bears an unfortunate resemblance to Gerber’s. As sublime as it tastes, sweet and rich and creamy, the presentation is a problem.
Take the same puree, combine it with eggs and thyme and bake it and you have another French classic, a timbale. That’s just a sexier way of saying custard or flan for a vegetable puree baked to a semi-solid state. (Spinach, broccoli and winter squash seem to get the same treatment more often than carrots, for some reason.)
Carrots are as appealing raw as they are cooked and that may be their greatest glory. Just shred them into a salad and you get color, texture, vibrancy. Turn them into a salad and you get much more. Luckily, the temptation to do exactly that will arise every time you open the refrigerator door if you have trouble keeping lettuce alive. Carrots last for weeks, which makes them the closest thing to a staple for a fresh vegetable. Pair them with above-average complements and you get a salad light-years ahead of the usual cafeteria standby.
My formula is a few carrots, grated, tossed with something oily and something acidic, mixed with something fruity and something nutty, and finished with whatever herb might be in the refrigerator. What makes it exceptional is the choices in each category. I try to go for luxe rather than ordinary.
The acid could be sherry vinegar or lime juice, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. The oil could be peanut or walnut, olive or just canola (although nut oils or olive oil bring out more of the inherent round, almost nutty flavor of the carrots). For fruitiness, raisins are the old standby, but chopped dates, dried cranberries or dried cherries are even better. Crystallized ginger is another favorite. Herb-wise, chives, cilantro, mint and dill are all possibilities. But I like scallions and curry leaves, especially together. Chopped green olives with peanuts and scallions take the salad in a whole other direction.
Not so long ago, Ferran Adria had young chefs dazzled when he first turned carrots into foam. But with a vegetable so versatile, and so profoundly satisfying, there’s no need to go molecular.