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Winter Carrots (Daucus carota)

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It’s time to thin carrots, and reap the rewards by eating the tiny baby carrots whose lives are ending untimely. Carrots that can be steamed to perfection, eaten with fish, sausage, tofu, or any other food that makes a tender tasty treat.

In my climate, carrots are fall-planted, but even gardeners in harshly cold climates can have carrots through the winter. Ruth Stout, who gardened in Connecticut, kept her carrots under a thick layer of mulch. In winter, she’d go out, lift off the mulch, and pull out her carrots – and she got frost through mid-June.

I wish I could say that the carrots in these pictures are my own – but they are the generous contribution of my neighbor, who handed them to me through the fence as he was thinning. He even gave me a cooking tip along with them. “Snip up the bottom part of the stems and throw them in with what you’re cooking,” he suggested. “They taste great.”

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The part he means is in the center of this picture: the light-green juicy part. They do taste good. You still have to cut off the tough shoulders of the carrot, but the stem bottoms are crisp and juicy, and add a nice flavor. Since the baby carrots are easy to steam whole, there’s not a lot of work involved in the whole procedure.

Some people use the leaves of carrots as a parsley substitute (carrots and parsley are in the same family), or throw them in the juicer or stock pot. The dark-green parts of the leaves are bitter from their high potassium content, so you may want to be cautious. The light-green bottom parts have a bit of pungency, but haven’t gotten to bitterness (at least in this young stage). These lighter greens probably share some of the protein, minerals, and vitamins (including vitamin K) of the darker upper leaves.

I love carrots fresh from the garden: one of my first garden experiences was on my grandparents’ farm. I can’t remember if it was my grandmother or my grandfather who amazed me by pulling a carrot straight out of the ground. I was four years old. Who knew carrots came out of the ground? But the flavor of it, washed off under the tap, the first crisp bite taken with in a minute of pulling it free, was something I never forgot.

The carrots my neighbor gave me are true baby carrots, unlike the kind you see in stores. Those bags of baby carrots? They’re just extruded big carrots, carved into baby shapes to fool us into thinking we’re getting something we’re not. (Don’t believe it? I wasn’t sure either, at first. Then I took a close look at them. Yep. Carved.)

Of course there is a difference between the immature thinned carrots my neighbor gave me, and the seeds that are bred to grow carrots which will never get bigger than my finger. Yet the tender, sweet-and-spicy fresh flavor of thinned carrots is its own delicacy.

Like many foods, carrots were originally grown for medicine. And modern science is finding that there may have been good reason for that. Carrots are food powerhouses; according to the Carrot Museum  one pound of carrots can give a normal person enough energy to lift 64 tons one foot into the air (although having the energy and having the strength are two different things. I’m not sure exactly how this energy level is calculated.).

Most people know about the carotene which converts to vitamin A in our bodies. (Both “daucus” and “carota” refer to the orange color that carotene gives to carrots.) It helps our night vision, and staves off macular degeneration. But one serving of carrots a day will also reduce chances of a heart attack by 60% (winter squash will do the same thing; it’s that beta-carotene again). And just two carrots a day can lower cholesterol by as much as 20%. Carrots can also help protect against cancer of the larynx, bladder, and cervix.

Some people claim to have cured cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and cardiovascular diseases by eating diets high in carrots. The Hallelujah Diet  was devised by a pastor in upper New York state who healed his own cancer with it, then went on the lecture circuit.

Eating carrots might have some drawbacks: the Greeks who hid in the Trojan Horse were said to have eaten carrots to make their bowels inactive. I’d never thought about that important part of infiltration strategy before. Wonder what happened to the liquid wastes?

If that last fact disturbs you, you can move on to the more genteel Carrot Nutrition quiz. (I’ve given some hints in this post.) Or, if you prefer not to work so hard, the Carrot Museum has a list of Carrot Trivia you can use to amuse your friends (that’s where I got the tip about the Trojan Horse).

Sometimes, devotion to carrots can go over the edge. Jeff Chiplis’s page  has over 10,000 carrot-related items. If  you get bitten by the carrot beetle (there is such a thing), there’s a special resort for you: reserve a room at the Armistead Cottage in Rhode Island. Romana Zawarti has decorated the place with over 2,036 carrot-inspired items, and her husband Charles photographs them.

Carrots may seem like a pedestrian vegetable, but when we have them for dinner, we’re tapping deep into our roots. Eating a piece of ancient history.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Barbee' November 29, 2009, 7:25 pm

    WOW! What an interesting, informative post. Now I’m hungry for carrots!

  • lostlandscape(James) November 30, 2009, 6:51 pm

    I won’t say that carrots are my absolute favorite vegetables, but I couldn’t imagine life and cooking without them–Great for a crunchy snack or wonderful juiced! I enjoyed your link tot he Carrot King and his explorations of the wild carrot plants. I wonder how many generations it would take for feral carrots to revert to something like their ancestors. We have feral radishes that have colonized many of our wild areas. Their roots smell like radish, but they’re woody and almost inedible, like the description of the roots of Queen Anne’s lace.

  • Town Mouse November 30, 2009, 8:16 pm

    Carrots are my favorite! I had no idea they’ve been around for that long…Enjoy!

  • Steve December 4, 2009, 6:44 pm

    Actually, those look pretty dam yummy! Isn’t it bizarre how marketing determines what looks scrumptious and what doesn’t? Talk about programmed……….I am glad I got over some of that and began eating “odd things”, personally. I am a big persimmon fan, among other things.

  • catmint December 8, 2009, 2:30 am

    What a diligently researched post on my favourite veg. which I tend to consume in large numbers as raw snacks. These are bought ones, so freshly grown must be at least a million (approximately) times better. Cheers, catmint

  • albizia juliebrisson January 11, 2010, 8:43 am

    Pomona, As the high school friend mentioned in the lovely piece about lovely beech trees, you neglected one other lovely aspect, to wit, that particular historic graveyard also had tremendous, WEEPING beeches. If possible, even more beautiful! LOL! There is a kibitzer in every long-time gardening friend! Albizia j.b.

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