Carrots: More Than Orange

Winter. Trying to eat local can be a bit of a challenge as Ontario greenhouse and storage fruits and vegetables become harder to find (look for the Foodland logo and check package and labels in-store as you might be surprised by the origin). But one vegetable that can really shine in recipes at this time of the year is carrots whether the more typical orange or coloured ‘heirloom’ varieties.

What’s not to like about carrots. They’re perfect for adding a slightly sweet note to savoury dishes while providing a great combination of vitamins and minerals. Native to Afghanistan and known as Queen Anne's Lace in a wild state, cultivated Ontario carrots are mainly grown in the Bradford area north of Toronto.

While we eat the carrot taproot (the main part which is grown underground), in ancient times carrot seeds and leaves were highly valued for their medicinal value. The Romans believed carrots and their seeds were aphrodisiacs.  Did you know carrots have been eaten raw only in the last 50 or so years!

Colour Options: In addition to orange, carrots can also be purple, red, white and yellow. Until the late 16th century when Dutch growers developed the sweet, plump orange carrot, almost all cultivated carrots were a deep, black purple. Today carrots come in a rainbow of colours:  purple, red, white, yellow and orange. Multi-coloured carrots may still be a rarity in grocery stores but check out your neighbourhood farmer’s market this summer.

Rainbow coloured carrots do taste different from orange. Yellow carrots have an earthy sweet flavour with notes of celery and parsley. White carrots are relatively mild. Purple carrots can have a peppery flavour but can also be very sweet.

Nutrition: Carrots’ bright orange colour comes from beta-carotene, which acts as an antioxidant and is converted to vitamin A in your body (white and yellow carrots have less beta carotene; in yellow and purple carrots, lutein represents almost half of the total carotenoids). Vitamin A helps your eyes stay healthy but there’s no truth to the old saying eating carrots will let you see in the dark. Carrots also contain folate and fibre and a medium-sized carrot has about 30 calories.

Purple carrots provide many of the same health benefits as orange carrots but also have high concentration of anthocyanins - antioxidant compounds that give many blue, purple and black berries their intense hues and health benefits. These blue pigments can improve memory, enhance vision, protect against heart attacks, act as anti-inflammatories, and even help control weight.

Red carrots contain Lycopene, the red pigment that gives tomatoes their deep colour and is linked to a lower risk of certain cancers, such as prostate cancer.

Since most nutrients are found just below the skin, try to leave the peel on and simply rinse and scrub with a vegetable brush. ‘Baby-cut’ carrots -- full-grown carrots that are machine peeled and shaped into smaller pieces -- are a little less nutritious than regular sized carrots.

The beta-carotene in carrots may become more bioavailable (absorbed by the body) when steamed. But don’t overcook carrots so they retain maximum flavour and nutritional value.

Is there a drawback from eating too many carrots? It is actually possible to turn the skin a shade of orange by massively over-consuming orange carrots.

Buying: Look for firm, crisp carrots with a smooth, blemish-free exterior (avoid carrots that are excessively cracked or forked). Deep green "shoulders" just below the top may indicate bitterness. Oversized carrots may have tough centres but may also be sweeter as sugars are concentrated in the core. The green tops on bunch carrots they should be brightly coloured, feathery and not wilted.

Storing: Store carrots in plastic bags in the refrigerator crisper; use within three weeks. To store longer, keep carrots in a cool place such as a root cellar. Remove the leafy green tops on bunch carrots before storing – the greens take moisture and vitamins out of the carrot, causing them to wilt and toughen. Store away from apples, pears, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene gas which can cause carrots to become bitter.

Serving Suggestions
 Carrots pair well in dishes with:
-  root vegetables such as turnips, beets and radishes, parsnips, potatoes, onions, shallots and mushrooms
- maple syrup, honey
- butter and cream
- cheese, especially cheddar, parmesan and pecorino
- cinnamon, ginger, curry, parsley, thyme and rosemary
- apple cider and other vinegars

Best Kitchen Tool for Raw Carrots: a julienne peeler to give long thin matchstick pieces with little effort! Use julienne carrot strips as a topping for salads (green, pasta, rice and quinoa), in coleslaw, Thai-style vegetable rolls.

Purple carrots are sweet and delicious both raw and cooked but can lose much of the gorgeous colour when boiled. Serve them fresh from the garden whenever possible.
cooked carrots

Steam: Forget boiling: steam carrots for maximum flavour and nutrition. Add 2-inches water to the steamer pot bottom and bring to a boil. Cut carrots into 1/4-inch coins; place in the steamer basket/top and steam 5 minutes.

Pan Sauté: Melt a tablespoon butter (or use olive oil) in a flat bottomed pan. Add wedges of carrots and cook 5 minutes turning carrots to coat. Sprinkle a little sugar, honey or maple syrup. Add chopped thyme leaves, 1/2 cup water; cover and cook until carrots are just tender, Remove lid and continue cooking until any liquid is evaporated and carrots are glazed.

Oven Roast: Enhance the sweetness with oven roasting. Toss wedges of carrots and onions with olive oil, sprinkle with fresh rosemary, salt and pepper. Place on a foil-lined baking tray and roast at 375F until tender (45 to 60 minutes), turning on the pan mid-way through. If carrots start to look dry but are still not tender, cover with foil. Finish with a drizzle of good quality balsamic vinegar.

And don't forget that carrots can play a delicious role in baked goods including that North America specialty: Carrot Cake topped with cream cheese icing. We also invite you to download this amazing recipe for Vegan Carrot Apple Muffins >> – courtesy of Nature’s Corner >>, a wonderful little bakery and café in the small village of Ridgeville in Niagara.