“What’s up with these carrots?” a friend asked the other evening. “They’re not like regular ones. And I hope you know I mean that in a good way,” he added as he helped himself to another serving.
I’d just braised a bunch of red carrots, my new favorite of the many-hued carrots that are increasingly available at farmers markets and even supermarkets. I find that when cooked, red carrots are denser and meatier than the others, with a more savory flavor; they aren’t so candy-sweet. The red carrots I buy don’t look red so much as deep pink, and when cooked, they turn a dark orange veering towards red.
In case you thought the white, yellow, red, and purple carrots you increasingly see in the marketplace are just a gimmick, I’ve got news for you: Orange carrots weren’t developed until the 1600s in Europe. This root vegetable, the second most popular in the world after potatoes, is believed to have started out as white or purple in it’s native Afghanistan.
In more recent years, the Vegetable Crops Research Unit, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, has been breeding different colored carrots for their beneficial pigments. Red carrots are a rich source of lycopene, a carotene found in tomatoes and watermelon that is helpful in preventing heart disease and some cancers.
Although kids and adults alike snack away on raw carrots, thinking they’re doing their bodies a big favor, it turns out that cooked carrots are better for you, because more of their nutrients become available to the human body when the cell walls are softened. And cooking the carrots whole, rather than cut up, ramps up their attributes further. In June, 2009, scientists from Newcastle University, in England, announced that their research showed that carrots boiled whole, rather than cut up, contain 25 percent more falcarinol, a cancer-fighting compound.
Instead of boiling, I braise whole carrots in a heavy skillet with a drizzle of olive oil, a generous seasoning of salt and enough water to come halfway up the sides of the horizontal roots. Covered with the lid and simmered for 10 to 15 minutes, they’re tender in far less time than carrots roasted in a hot oven. When a knife slides easily into them, remove the lid, boil off any excess water, and let the carrots brown slightly in the oil remaining in the skillet. Presented on a platter, anointed with some fresh olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, some fresh herbs, and a shower of flaky sea salt, they are a commanding sight on the table, and on your plate. As well they should be!