December 1, 2020

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in praise of the carrot

Everyone knows we left the EU in solidarity with wonky carrots. The tabloid headlines about misshapen specimens thrown onto the compost heap on account of EU regulations turned us orange with rage.

Growing up, I was taught to eat lots of carrots, wonky or straight. It was their miraculous effect on eyesight that my parents always stressed. “Eat your carrots and you’ll never need glasses,” they said knowingly, gazing down at me kindly through bifocal lenses. And every history student will have heard that the secret of radar was protected by selling the Germans the myth that we could see the Luftwaffe coming from so far away because we Brits ate so much of this miraculous veg.

How best to eat them? Carrots are wonderful roasted. You can accentuate their natural sweetness with honey or maple, or offset it with earthy flavours such as coriander, smoked paprika and cumin. The use of the latter makes this filling salad feel deeply autumnal. There are more unexpected dream pairings too, including this recipe for parmesan roasted carrots.

They are great made into dips, as in the case of this delicious creation with chickpeas and almonds, though there is something almost cannibalistic about scooping up a big mouthful with a carrot crudité.

Don’t discard the tops: apart from being beautiful (ladies of the Stuart court pinned the plumage of young carrots to their hats like feathers), they are full of flavour. Try whizzing them up into a pesto (which you could even use to drizzle atop these carrot gnocchi).

Carrots are made for snacking: one munched whole is an invigorating sign of a well-brought-up schoolboy. And if, like me, you love Tyrrells-style vegetable crisps, try this healthier baked version, flavoured with the Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar, for guilt-free scoffing.

Carrots go very well in Asian dishes. The humble carrot and coriander soup is given new life in this version, jazzed up with coconut milk and chilli, while in stir-fries and curries, carrots are useful as they preserve their crunch. I love carrot ribbons, lightly pickled in an Asian-style dressing, to serve alongside meat. And the Indian pickle, gajar ka achar, made with split mustard seeds, is a delicious accompaniment to any curry.

Carrots come in different colours and varieties. As with so many veg in recent years, we have been reintroduced to the rainbow varieties: Jamie Oliver shows off red, yellow and purple ‘heirloom carrots’ in this Christmassy recipe, which uses clementine juice as a glaze. These unusually coloured specimens are in fact the original: the earliest carrots were purple, grown first in Afghanistan in the seventh century AD. It was the Dutch who first grew the modern, orange carrot in the Middle Ages. Whatever the colour, for the more slender specimens, don’t peel or you’ll have nothing left – a gentle scrub is all they need. You will look at miniature Chantenay carrots with new eyes when a poncy dinner party looms. They simply need steaming and serving buttered, alone or alongside Jersey Royal potatoes.

But fancy heritage varieties aside, this is above all a humble veg. Indeed, there is something heartening about a carrot’s value: bread may now top £1.50 a loaf, but you can still bag a kilo of carrots for under a quid. And so use them liberally in puddings too: in carrot cake, of course, or in the Indian dessert carrot halwa, where they are made aromatic with cardamom and rose water.

Or, most simply of all, extract the carrot’s sweetness unadulterated in a glass of cold-pressed juice, laced with a little fresh ginger. A sight for sore and degenerating eyes.

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