Let's hear it for carrots; Vegetable is loved by chefs and doctors

California grew 1.9 billion pounds of carrots

Sacramento Bee - Bugs Bunny would be pleased.

Carrots -- the old standby of the vegetable drawer -- are enjoying newfound admiration. Chefs love their flavor and (not always orange) color. They crave their crunch and adaptability.

As a bonus, carrots combine a massive dose of antioxidants along with good taste, making them a healthful side dish of choice. And unlike many vegetables, fresh carrots are in season throughout the winter and the rest of the year, too.

California is the carrot capital, producing about 80 percent of the nation's crop.

"We're able to grow carrots year-round, but the larger production time is for winter harvest," said Nathan Sano, manager of the California Fresh Carrot Advisory Board.

In 2012, California grew 1.9 billion pounds of carrots, according to the board. Of that total, about 70 percent was turned into baby-cut carrots.

"Baby-cut" aren't really baby carrots; they're fully mature, small-diameter carrots. Farmers plant these carrots closer together so the roots stay slim.

Baby-cuts created a California carrot boom in the late 1990s, with a 30 percent increase in acreage devoted to this crop. Since that spike, carrot production and consumption have stayed constant.

"We've been pretty consistent over the last few years," Sano said. "The majority (of the crop) goes into baby-cut peeled and prepackaged carrots."

The appeal of baby-cut carrots is simple: They're fast and easy.

"People love them because they're more convenient," Sano said. "You don't have to scrub and peel. Just open the bag and serve."

Interest in heirloom vegetables has brought many cooks and gardeners to more colorful carrots: purple, red, yellow and white as well as orange.

Del Rio Botanical, which supplies vegetables to several restaurants in Sacramento, Calif., raises colorful carrots.

"We grow some beautiful purple carrots," said Del Rio's Suzanne Ashworth. "Chefs love them. We have lots of baby carrots in different colors. That's one of their favorites."

These rainbow roots surprise some of Del Rio's customers who get the "Atomic Purple" or pale "Lunar White" carrots in their weekly Community Supported Agriculture boxes.

"Most home gardeners and consumers aren't familiar with carrots in colors," Ashworth said. "We have some that are purple throughout. They're pretty cool, too."

In most varieties, the carrot's skin may be different, but the core remains bright orange. With others, the inside matches the outside.

It's no wonder chefs love carrots. Capable of both savory and sweet, carrots can be part of any course from soup to dessert.

Because of convenience, consumers tend to buy their carrots without tops. But whole carrots have their fans, too.

"Markets make them difficult to appreciate," said Ashworth, no fan of packaged baby-cut carrots.

Instead, real baby carrots -- harvested young with their green tops still attached -- are a treat, she said.

"Baby carrots are beautiful," Ashworth added. "I like them with a little top on."

That also verifies that the carrot was a true baby, and not just cut to size.

GINGER-GLAZED BABY-CUT CARROTS WITH CRANBERRIES

Serves 7 or 8

The easiest way to dress up a meal is to turn the obligatory vegetable into something special. It's especially nice to use seasonal flavors.

In this dish, ginger adds a subtle kick and cranberries a winter flair to glazed carrots. With sugar and butter, the dish is a little sweet and a little indulgent. Pair this with roasted meats.

If you really like the heat of ginger, use a little more of it.

Peeled baby-cut carrots are a convenient option, but if you prefer, use whole carrots, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 ounces fresh ginger root, peeled and grated (about 2 tablespoons), or more to taste

2 pounds baby-cut carrots

3 tablespoons sugar

Salt

1-1/2 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth or water

1 cup sweetened dried cranberries

Melt the butter in a large nonstick saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ginger and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the carrots, sugar, salt to taste and the broth or water, and stir to combine. Cook until the liquid comes to a boil, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for 5 minutes.

Add the cranberries and increase the heat to medium-high, bringing the liquid to a boil. Cook until the liquid has reduced to a glazelike consistency and the carrots are just tender, 12 to 14 minutes. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Transfer to a serving dish; just before serving, stir to evenly coat the carrots with the glaze.

Per serving (based on 8): 150 calories, 1 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 20 g sugar

(Reach Debbie Arrington at darrington@sacbee.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)

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