Exploring Carrots: Facts, Folklore, and Fun Recipes
Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.— Jim Davis ("Garfield" cartoonist)
When and Where Did It All Begin?
Long before organized agriculture, even before the wooly mammoth was hunted for food, there were root vegetables—yes, turnips, parsnips and carrots are that old.
Of all foodstuffs, root vegetables have been cultivated for eons, probably because they are incredibly easy to grow. Food historians believe the turnip was cultivated as long as 4,000 or even 5,000 years ago. But don’t let those humble beginnings cause you to categorize root vegetables as of lesser importance. Consider this—root vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods in the world. They grow underground and so absorb a vast amount of vitamins and minerals from the soil. They are super-foods!
Most researchers believe that a carrot-like root originated in central Asia, near present-day Afghanistan and Turkestan (red and purple carrots still grow wild there today.) By the 10th century, purple carrots were growing in Iran and northern Arabia; from there they spread to northern Africa and into Spain.
Did You Know?
* There is a World Carrot Museum (in the United Kingdom)
* There are two main types of carrots: Eastern carrots have purple or yellow roots. They bolt easily and are most commonly found where we believe carrots first originated (Afghanistan, Russia, Iran, and India). Western carrots are more favored today; they have orange, red or white roots and might have originated in Turkey, as a mutation of the Eastern carrot.
From the 10th century to the early 16th century, the carrot was growing in popularity (pardon the pun), but not as a foodstuff. Herbalists believed carrot seeds capable of curing kidney stones, pleurisy, and infertility; a poultice of carrots was used to treat animal bites and cancerous lesions
By the mid-16th century, Holland was leading the pack in the cultivation of the carrot, and the brightly-colored root was deemed attractive enough to gain a prominent place in several Dutch Masters paintings. Ultimately carrots found their way into stews, soups, and puddings and in 1749 carrots were being exported from England by the Dutch East India Company.
Did You Know?
Orange wasn’t used to describe color until the middle of the 16th century. Experts argue that because very few things in the natural world are orange, there was no need for the word. Instead, writers substituted other terms, such as gold or amber.
We Started Cooking
In 1723 John Nott compiled “The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary; or, The Accomplish'd Housewife's Companion”—a very early reference to recipes with carrots as the main ingredient:
Take half a pint of cream, two penny loaves, grated, and a quarter of a pound of beef suet, and as much red carrot well boil’d, a little rosewater, the yolks of four and whites of two eggs, a quarter of a pound of melted butter, a spoonful of flour, and sugar to your palate, stir them well together; let it be pretty thin, butter a dish, put it in and bake it: when it is bak’d, turn it into a dish the bottom upward, sauce it with butter, sugar, and lime juice.
Outside the Oval Office
Thomas Jefferson was the 3rd President of the United States, and was also a skilled horticulturalist. His Monticello garden was an experimental laboratory, a gathering place for plants from around the world.
His 8-acre garden held an amazing collection of hundreds of vegetable cultivars, grottoes, and fruit tree groves. And it is here that he raised several varieties of carrots—18 bushels in 1814.
By the way, at about this same time in our Nation’s history, there was one minor slip, an error that became a happy accident for lovers of “wildflowers.” Some carrot seeds escaped the environs of cultivation and became the delicate “Queen Anne’s Lace.”
And We Went Rogue!
But even “tame” carrots had a wild side. According to the U.K. Museum of Carrots:
By the 1800's horticultural growers were producing roots of a colossal size. Some were two feet in length with a girth of twelve inches and weighing four pounds each. Carrots were widely cultivated in the walled gardens of country estates. Growers were continually experimenting with strains to create the perfect "show roots". Come the 19th century, carrots were widely grown and began their descent into the ordinary alongside onions and potatoes. This certainly was not a bad thing, as obviously some foodstuffs have to take the role as workhorse recipe ingredients. And carrots certainly do it well, whether it's the leading taste in a soup, cake or refreshing drink, or bit-player in stock, salad or stew.
Did You Know?
The image of bunnies happily munching on carrots is a myth. In fact, according to the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British counterpart to the ASPCA) carrots are NOT good for rabbits. In fact, they present a serious health hazard.
But, There Is Even More to the Story
You have no doubt heard that carrots are good for your eyes; is this an old wives tale or is it true? And where did the notion of a carrots-eyesight connection come from? For this part of the story, we need to fast-forward to the Second World War in Europe where carrots became more than a colorful tidbit in our steak and kidney pie.
It was during the war that two imaginative, conniving (and convincing) ideas were spread throughout Europe: (1) the success of the RAF (Royal Air Force) in night-flying and target location was due to exceptional eyesight, and (2) their keen eyesight was fueled by the consumption of carrots.
These two ideas have been twisted to fabricate a third (but untrue) story—that the Germans were fooled into believing that the RAF had super-human eyesight. The Germans were well aware of the technology being used by the RAF (onboard radar), but the general public was not. It was the citizens of England, not the Germans, who were the target of the propaganda campaign. But why?
During the war, many foodstuffs (beef, flour, and sugar to name a few) were rationed. But humble vegetables (such as carrots) were in oversupply. The hope of improved nighttime vision was welcomed by the citizens of Great Britain where blackouts were being enforced and so carrots went from bland to bling.
What About Today?
Believe it or not, China currently produces about one-third of all carrots bought and sold worldwide (a staggering 16 million tons!) Russia is the second-largest carrot producer, with the United States following a close third.
Of all of the carrots consumed in the United States, 75 percent are eaten fresh—they make a tasty snack, are a popular favorite for children's lunchboxes, and (along with apple slices) are replacing French fries at some fast-food establishments.
So, how will you use the other 25 percent? Here are a few suggestions from the internet and my recipe box:
How to Grow and Harvest
- The carrot (Daucus carota) is botanically related to parsley, dill, fennel, celery.
- Hardiness Zones: 4 through 10.
- Light Requirements: Full Sun.
- Soil: Loose and sandy (not clay).
- Planting Time: Sow seeds 3 to 5 weeks before the last spring frost date.
- Spacing: Plant 3–4 inches apart in rows. Rows should be at least a foot apart.
- Thinning: Once plants are an inch tall, thin so they stand 3 inches apart. Snip them with scissors instead of pulling them out to prevent damage to the roots of remaining plants.
- Moisture Requirements: Water at least one inch per week.
- Harvest: Carrots are mature at about 2 ½ months and when ½ inch in diameter.
Carrot Taco Shells
Carine is a French mom living in New Zealand. On her blog Sweetashoney.com.nz she promises "clean food and easy recipes." Her recipe for taco shells made from grated carrots sounds interesting. By the way, in case you are wondering, a size 6 egg (which is what he recipe calls for) is a USDA size "small."
While we're on the subject of tacos, the Thai-inspired chicken tacos with peanut sauce by Jaclyn of CookingClassy (with a sprinkle of fancy) are to die for! Think tacos can only be tex-mex flavored? Think again. Although carrots are not the star of the show, they add to the flavor, color, and crunch of these imaginative taco treats.
This recipe is mine, and perhaps souffle is a bit of a misnomer. This is not your typical fluffy, eggy, light-as-a-feather souffle; it is dense and rich. This could easily be a vegetarian meal, or if you take smaller slices, a wonderful side dish (in place of potatoes or rice) with chicken or a mild fish. If you like the Stouffer's Spinach souffle, you will enjoy this.
- 1/2 pound carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 cup water
- 1 teaspoon dry thyme leaves
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup flour
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Place the carrots, onion, water, and thyme in a saucepan with a lid. Cook 20 minutes or until carrots are very tender. Drain
- Puree carrot/onion mixture in a food processor. Add eggs, flour, and seasoning and pulse until well blended.
- Pour mixture into lightly-greased 9-inch spring form pan. Bake in preheated oven 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Grated Carrot Salad
The "traditional" French carrot salad is a simple mix of grated carrots, fresh garlic, dill, and olive oil. Chickpeas, which are full of fiber and a source of protein, can take this from simple side dish to full meal.
- 2 cans chickpeas (15 ounces each), rinsed and drained, or 3 cups cooked chickpeas
- 2 cups grated carrots (about ¾ pound or 5 to 6 medium carrots, peeled and grated on the large holes of a box grater or in a food processor fitted with a grating attachment)
- ⅔ cup chopped celery (about 2 long stalks)
- ½ cup thinly sliced green onions (about 4)
- ½ cup chopped fresh dill leaves (I used one 0.75 ounce package)
- ½ cup pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
- ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 to 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 1 medium-to-large clove garlic, pressed or minced
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl. For best flavor, allow the salad to rest for at least 30 minutes or overnight (covered) in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature.
NOTE: You can add even more flavor and interest to this salad by adding crumbled feta cheese and/or Kalamata olives.
"If you’re eating carrots raw, you’ll find that grating enhances their flavor. This is because the more times a carrot is cut, the more its sugars and hydrocarbons are released — meaning grated carrots taste fresher and sweeter."— Christopher Kimball, Milk Street
Carb Diva Perfect Carrot Cake
My favorite cake. My birthday cake. The perfect carrot cake. For me, this is even better than chocolate!
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup oil
- 1/2 cup applesauce
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 2 cups shredded carrots, raw
- 1 cup flaked coconut
- 1 cup walnuts, chopped
- 1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Grease and flour a 9x13-inch cake pan.
- Sift together the first 6 ingredients (flour through nutmeg) and set aside. Place the sugar, oil, applesauce, eggs, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Mix together with a spoon.
- Add the dry (flour) mixture, and then stir in the carrots, coconut, walnuts, and pineapple.
- Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Cool and frost with your favorite cream cheese frosting.
What makes this recipe work?
- The addition of applesauce serves two purposes—first, it substitutes for some of the cooking oil. And the acid of the apples reacts with the baking soda to provide more lift (leavening) to this dense cake batter.
- Flaked coconut and pineapple provide some natural sweetness.
- Chopped walnuts contribute texture and a satisfying crunch.
Moroccan Carrot-Red Lentil Soup
Allow me to introduce you to Julia. The introduction to her blog tells us that she is a "...wife, mom to three growing boys, lover of food. Here you will find quick & easy weeknight meal ideas, kid-friendly recipes, and a few sweet treats. My roots are from the Mediterranean and many of my recipes incorporate those flavors!"
Her Moroccan carrot red lentil soup is certainly Mediterranean, quick, and an easy weeknight meal idea.
So what do you think? Have I moved carrots from boring to bravo?
© 2017 Linda Lum