Some 30 years ago, at the farmers market, the taste of a single carrot brought back memories of the fresh summer mornings I trailed my grandmother. She would thump melons, sniff peaches and swap recipes clipped from the newspaper with the farm women near her home on the New Jersey shore. As I exchanged money with a farmer, whose fingers resembled his thick, gnarled carrots, he assured me the lacy-topped roots he'd dug that morning had been raised without chemicals. In that first sweet crunch, I realized the relationship between how and where vegetables are grown and their flavor.
Our local carrots are perfect just as they are — sliced and served with a dip, sprinkled with lime, cumin and coarse salt, or tossed in a salad. In winter, carrots are the backbone vegetable on which to build layers of flavor in a stock or stew. The heirloom varieties — white, yellow, purple, violet, burgundy and plum — offer a range of nuanced flavors — earthy, citrusy, sugary.
I've seen older recipes for a pudding of carrots and honey. Historians write that the vegetable was first domesticated in Afghanistan. Its flavors are a good match with Indian and Middle Eastern herbs and spices — cumin, red chilies, turmeric, ginger, curry, cardamom, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, fennel, black pepper, mint, basil, cilantro, as well as citrus.
Some food writers suggest including the leaves in dishes, but I find them bitter and distracting. In fact, it's best to remove the tops and store carrots, unwashed, in a paper bag in the crisper of the refrigerator. Scrubbed carrots kept in plastic tend to turn slimy. If possible, buy them in bulk.
As a bonus, our growers are cultivating "storage" carrots that taste even sweeter several months after harvest. When stored carefully they will sweeten over time, with those flavors to be released in January and February. Enjoy local carrots now and look for the other varieties later in the year.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis author and cooking instructor.