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Carrots

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Vitamin A is derived from beta-carotene and carrots are the leading source of this substance in the American diet. In fact, carotenoids, the group of plant pigments of which beta-carotene is a member, are so named because they were first identified in carrots. This ever-popular vegetable is also a source of disease-fighting flavonoids, and carrots contain a specific type of fiber, called calcium pectate, which may lower blood cholesterol.

With the exception of beets, carrots contain more sugar than any other vegetable, which makes them a satisfying snack eaten raw and a tasty addition to a variety of cooked dishes. In fact, some of the nutrients in carrots are more easily absorbed when the vegetable has been cooked, even briefly.

The carrot belongs to the Umbelliferae family, and is recognizable by its feathery leaves as a relative of parsley, dill, fennel, celery, and the wildflower Queen Anne's Lace, from which it first may have been domesticated. In earlier times, carrots were small red, yellow, or purple roots; the elongated orange carrot, forerunner of today's familiar vegetable, was probably developed in the seventeenth century.

Varieties

There are many varieties of carrots, but most of those grown for the American market are 7" to 9" long and 3/4" to 1 1/2" in diameter; carrots of this type are commonly sold in plastic bags at the supermarket. Some stores also offer bunches of carrots with their green tops attached. You may see some less familiar varieties at your local farmstand or farmer's market, including short, Fat (but deliciously sweet) Chantenay carrots and small round carrots that are a treat for the kids.

Large carrots are sometimes peeled and trimmed to 1 1/2" to 2" lengths and packaged as "baby" carrots. But true baby carrots are pulled from the ground early, and actually look like miniature carrots. They are sold in specialty shops or local markets, usually with their green tops attached.

Availability

The majority of carrots for the U.S. market are grown in California and Michigan, and shipped nationwide all year round. In the summer and fall, you may find locally grown fresh carrots at farmers' markets or produce stands.

Shopping

Since the Fifties, almost all carrots in the United States have been sold in plastic bags. "Topped" or "cliptop" carrots--with their leafy greens cut off--are usually packaged in 1- or 2-pound bags that often have thin orange lines printed on them. This decoration gives the illusion of brighter, fresher-looking carrots. Other bags have a dark band at their bottoms, thus obscuring the stem ends of the carrots, which provide an important visual clue to freshness. In certain states, however, carrots bags are required to have a "window" that affords the consumer a clear view of the contents.

Many markets sell carrots in bunches with their tops still on, but usually at a higher price than bagged carrots. Some consumers see the tops as an indication of freshness, which indeed they are--if crisp and bright green. However, refrigeration and moisture-retaining packaging are the best preservers of freshness: If carrots are displayed unwrapped at room temperature, they will lose sweetness and crispness, with or without their leafy crown.

Look for well-shaped carrots; they should not be gnarled or covered with hairlike rootlets. Their color should be a healthy reddish orange, not pale or yellow, from top to bottom (the darker the orange color, the more beta carotene is present). The top, or "shoulder," may be tinged with green, but should not be dark or black, both indications of age. However, the green part is likely to be bitter (it should be trimmed before eating); if carrots are very green on top, they should not be purchased. Also, avoid carrots that are cracked, shriveled, soft, or wilted.

Fairly young carrots are likely to be mild flavored and tender, but, surprisingly, mature carrots are often sweeter, with a dense, close-grained texture. Regardless of its age, the smaller a carrot's core (the fibrous channel that runs the length of the vegetable), the sweeter the carrot: This is because its natural sugars lie in the outer layers. Usually, you can't see the core until you cut the carrot, but any carrots that have large, thick shoulders are likely to have large cores, too.

Storage

To preserve their flavor and texture, carrots should be refrigerated. Keep them in the refrigerator crisper, in their original plastic bag. If they were purchased loose, place them in a perforated or loosely closed plastic bag. Don't store carrots together with apples, pears, or other fruits that produce ethylene gas as they ripen (even in the refrigerator, ripening of such fruits slows, but does not cease). Exposure to ethylene gas will turn carrots bitter.

If you buy carrots with "tops," twist or cut off the leaves before storing. Otherwise, the greens will soon wilt and decay; furthermore, moisture will be drawn from the roots, turning them limp and rubbery.

Preparation

Although bagged carrots usually look clean, bacteria from the soil may be present on the surface. So whether eating the carrots raw or cooking them, be sure to scrub them with a vegetable brush under running water, or peel them with a swivel-bladed vegetable peeler or paring knife; then rinse thoroughly.

If you enjoy crunching on raw carrots, then do so. However, since carrots have tough cellular walls that the body cannot easily break down, cooking them just until crisp-tender actually makes their nutrients (including beta-carotene) more accessible.

Proper cooking brings out the sweetness in carrots. They can be left whole or cut into short lengths; halving them lengthwise will reduce cooking time. If you prefer, cut them straight or diagonally crosswise into "coins," or slice them into julienne (matchstick-size) strips. Grated or shredded carrots also cook very quickly. A food processor is handy for slicing or shredding.

Baking: When baking or roasting other foods, place whole carrots in a shallow baking dish with a little olive oil, broth, or water and 2 unpeeled garlic cloves. Cover and bake them at the same time. Cooking time: 40 to 45 minutes in a 350°F oven.

Blanching: There is no reason to boil carrots until tender; for fully cooked carrots, steaming or microwaving are better alternatives. But blanching helps to preserve color and nutrients, yet makes carrots a bit less crunchy and easier to eat when they are being served on a party platter with dips. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and drop in the carrots. When the water returns to a boil, cook the carrots briefly. Drain, then cool them under cold running water. Cooking time: three to four minutes. Once carrots are blanched, they can be tossed in a hot skillet with a little broth, oil, or butter and heated through.

Microwaving: Fruit juice, such as orange or apple juice, or broth, can be used instead of water as the cooking liquid. Place 1 pound of carrots, cut into 1" pieces, in a covered microweavable dish with 2 tablespoons of liquid. Cooking time: four to six minutes.

Steaming: Place the carrots in 1" or less of water or other liquid (orange juice or chicken broth, for instance) in a heavy pan with a tight-fitting lid. The liquid should be completely absorbed by the end of cooking time. You can also use a conventional vegetable steamer. Cook until just tender for serving as is; or until fully tender if you wish to mash or puree the carrots. Cooking times: for whole carrots, five to eight minutes; for slices, three to four minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Carrots/1 cup shredded raw

Calories
47
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
3.3
1
Carbohydrate (g)
11
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
39
Beta-carotene (mg)
15

Carrot Juice/1/2 cup

Calories
47
Total fat (g)
0.2
Saturated fat (g)
0
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Dietary fiber (g)
0.9
Protein (g)
1
Carbohydrate (g)
11
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
34
Beta-carotene (mg)
6.3



The Yin and Yang of Chinese Cooking
Winter Vegetables

Date Published: 4/21/2005
Date Reviewed: 8/2/2005


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