The Meryl Streep of Vegetables.
When we think of the ultimate versatile vegetable, we automatically think potato (boil ’em mash ’em stick ’em in a stew). Maybe even cauliflower, given the Brassica can now be rice, a pizza crust, a steak, fried ‘chicken’, a healthified version of almost anything millennials throw at it.
But do we ever stop to think about the humble carrot?
On a rainy-day last week, after pondering the existence of two lazy bags of carrots in the bottom of my fridge (I always forget we already have carrots and buy more, just in case I need to make a soffritto at a moment’s notice you know), I made the carrot and miso soup with spring onion oil out of Shannon Martinez’s new cookbook, Vegan with Bite.
I didn’t expect it to be anything special, but I’m trying hard in 2021 to be anti-waste, and didn’t feel like whipping up a carrot cake that would likely be forced upon friends and family. But, to my astonishment, it was revelatory.
The list of ingredients was minimal, just the usual garlic and onion fried gently in oil with salt and white pepper, then 10 of my languishing carrots, two good tablespoons of white miso paste and stock. I simmered the lot together until the carrots squashed beneath a spoon, then blitzed it until it was orange velvet and served it with a drizzle of bright green spring onion oil (a brilliant recipe that uses odds and ends of herbs and you guessed it — spring onions).
I took my first mouthful, then stared at my spoon and the bowl in wonder: how was this so good?
It was sweet yet deeply savoury from the miso and stock, with a delicate, floral heat from the white pepper.
And the carrots, they carried themselves with such dignity and subtle grace that I, shocked, finally saw them for what they were: the Meryl Streep of vegetables, capable of being whatever they goddamn wanted to be.
I told everyone about that soup. My partner got tired of my constant demands to “Try the soup, you won’t believe how good carrots can be, seriously try it, please try it,” and finally tried it while I pretended not to stare at him as he was doing so (he loved it).
Venturing into Carrot Land
As a natural continuation of my newfound carrot appreciation, I did a search both online and in my cookbooks for other carrot-forward recipes, steering clear of the overdone honey roasted carrots or carrot cake adorned with sickly sweet cream cheese frosting (yes we know, carrots are sweet, but they can be more).
I found Mark Bittman’s Carrot Gnocchi recipe and made it for dinner a few nights after my affair with the soup. Yes, the recipe relies on potato, but carrots are the starring flavor. The plain potato pillows are bolstered into something sweet and earthy, with a striking colour to brighten up any table.
I served the gnocchi with Bittman’s suggestion of minced garlic cooked ‘in a puddle of olive oil’ along with red pepper flakes, chopped parsley and a little of the gnocchi cooking water, and I had a dish that again defied the simple ingredients it was made with, and that made carrot the lead of the show.
We ate the plate of dumplings without any accompaniment (other than a bottle of Riesling), and I couldn’t believe I’d spent a mere $5 or so on the ingredients.
Next, I fell for Ottolenghi’s crushed carrots with harissa and pistachios from Plenty More. Ottolenghi serves this as a starter with a pile of warm pittas, though I happily ate the whole plate as dinner. The combination of sweet sautéed and crushed carrot, spicy harissa, tangy yoghurt and crunchy pistachios was addictive — I would choose this over any dip (yes, even spinach cob).
Later, on a particularly chilly night, I took to Nigel Slater’s Green Feast: Autumn, Winter, knowing he’d have something for me, and landed on the recipe titled ‘carrots, rice, coriander’. He describes this dish as soft rice with sweet, earthy flavours. It’s essentially a risotto (though he doesn’t call it that), with a buttery carrot and coriander purée stirred in at the end. Once it’s spooned into bowls it’s crowned with diced sautéed carrots and an extra scattering of coriander. It’s gloriously comforting, and a true celebration of the root vegetable.
Slater didn’t waste an opportunity to highlight the humble carrot, and neither should we.
My last trip into carrot land (for the time being) was via Bryant Terry’s Vegetable Kingdom. I stopped flicking pages once I saw the barbecue carrots with slow-cooked white beans, pikliz and scallions.
Terry treats the carrots like a piece of prime rib steak that demands time and care — the whole carrots are rubbed with oil and a BBQ seasoning fragrant with spices (white peppercorns, sweet and smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, chili powder, cayenne), then they’re slow roasted under a tent of foil for 2 hours, until they’re meltingly tender. The oven is then cranked up and the foil removed, to allow the carrots to sizzle and caramelize all over.
I took a bite when they were not long out of the oven, and was blown away by their depth of flavour. Soft, sweet, spiced, earthy and caramelized, they’re an absolute treat on their own. Served with the slow-cooked tomatoey, herby white beans, the tangy pikliz (a spicy pickled vegetable medley enlivened with orange and lime juice) and a hunk of good toasted sourdough bread, this was perhaps the most illuminating dish of the lot.
Can You Marry A Carrot?
Maybe I’ve just spent too long with the carrots and I’m overemphasising their greatness (I’m in the honeymoon period of my carrot love it’s true), but the carrot in Terry’s dish is not just a carrot, it’s akin to a lovingly cooked piece of meat — but it’s better. It has more going for it.
It has the umami (that can be increased by adding other umami-rich ingredients like miso etc.), but it’s also got a sweet earthiness and a texture that is so perfectly soft without being mushy that you just can’t find elsewhere (or maybe you can, but I have orange-coloured glasses on okay).
I haven’t even ventured into raw carrot territory — I used to eat a shredded raw carrot Moroccan salad with chickpeas, spices, dried apricots or cherries, mint, almonds and rose petals on the daily a few years back. It was my simple but special lunchtime standard, the fresh crunch of the carrots giving me a lift to get through the day (maybe I’ll go and make it now, it’s been so long…).
Then there’s desserts. Carrots can be more than just carrot cake. Think carrot ice-cream, carrot cheesecake, carrot pie (like pumpkin, but carrot) or carrot cinnamon buns. It’s like in Forest Gump when Bubba talks about shrimp — just replace the shrimp with carrot and then we’re talking.
I’ve barely touched the surface of what carrots can be. But what I’ve learned from this brief adventure with the orange (or purple, yellow or pink) root veg, is that carrots shouldn’t be relegated to a sad unseasoned side dish, water-logged and limp from being steamed in the microwave, or plonked in boiling water and left unattended. They should be celebrated, promoted to be the star of the show.
So repeat after me, carrots can be anything they want to be.