During these cold and somewhat bleak days of fall and winter, I bet you’re quite glad you grew carrots this year. Happily stored in damp sand or sawdust in your basement or root cellar, they’re a go-to kitchen ingredient during the season when few fresh vegetables can be had. Homegrown carrots have special zing—a flavor some describe as “herbaceous,” others as “earthy”—that you don’t find in supermarket varieties. More than an obligatory vegetable to grow for storage, carrots are downright versatile, adding savory bulk to comfort soups and stews, and sweet fiber to cakes and breads. I have come to adore carrots as a pantry staple, right there alongside my potatoes, onions and apples.
Carrots thrive in rich, loose soil, with full sun; they can tolerate light shade. Raised beds are ideal for growing carrots. Carrots can be planted in early spring through mid-summer; seed every 2 or 3 weeks for continuous harvest. Cover seeds with fine soil and when their tops come up, thin to one plant every 3 inches. Once the tops are a few inches high, mulch the soil to keep the roots cool and keep it weeded so they aren’t competing for water. Harvest carrots when they are no more than 1 inch in diameter—that is when they are most tender and flavorful.
Long before orange carrots, there were violet carrots, white carrots, and yellow carrots from Europe to Afghanistan. The orange varieties, so familiar to us today, came about in Holland in the 1600s when they first appeared in Dutch paintings of the period. The Early Horn carrot and the long scarlet type were both sent to America by Dutch Mennonites and were first cultivated in Pennsylvania. From these two Dutch orange carrots, most of the other carrots evolved.
- ‘Chantenay Red Cored’: Descended from Chantenays and brought to America from Europe in the late 1800s. Its flavor improves with storage, becoming sweeter, so it’s a great fall crop to go into the root cellar. According to Roger Yepsen in A Celebration of Heirloom Vegetables (Artisan, 1998), “fresh out of the garden, they taste herby and slightly wild, and may have a hint of soapy flavor characteristic of certain heirloom carrots.” In a Seeds of Change taste test of 15 carrot varieties, Chantenay Red Cored rated the highest. A great market variety, they’re excellent for the table, and for canning, juicing, freezing, or storing.
- ‘Parisienne’ or ‘Parisian Rondo’: This is a reintroduction of the old Golden Ball or Early Frame—a small, round carrot that grows quickly and was “used historically as a garnish for roasts and fanciful food preparations,” according to William Woys Weaver in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). These little, round, sweet carrots (1-2 inches in diameter) grow well in heavy soil or in greenhouses—they were bred in the 19th century for cold-frame culture. Crisp and delicate, Parisienne is delicious served raw in salads or lightly steamed.
- ‘True Danvers’ or ‘Danvers Half Long’: Originated with market gardeners near Danvers, Mass., in the 1870s as a crop to interplant with onions. “Since carrots and onions are compatible in the field, the Connecticut onion farmers used True Danvers to increase the productivity of their land,” according to Woys Weaver. This dependable, true American variety is adapted to many different soil types, is deep orange in color, and 6-8 inches long. Danvers is another great storage carrot.
Staying true to their versatile nature, carrots are delicious eaten raw or can be cooked by just about any method. As a root vegetable, carrots are best when roasted, but when baked in cakes and breads, they become sweet and dessert-like. Most people prefer to peel carrots before cooking, but if you’ve grown them yourself and they’re fairly young, just give them a good scrubbing first.
Roast: 20-30 minutes at 425°F
Steam: 5-7 minutes
Saute: 5-8 minutes
Grill: 10 minutes
Have an abundance of carrots? Try out these two recipes on your family!
Maple-roasted Heirloom Vegetables
1 lb. heirloom carrots, sliced into 1/4” rounds
½ lb. heirloom fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
½ lb. onions, peeled and cut into 1” chunks
2 T melted butter
3 T maple syrup
salt and pepper
½ cup chopped parsley
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Parboil the carrots and potatoes for 5 minutes; drain and pat dry. Combine with onions in a large roasting pan.
3. Melt the butter and combine with maple syrup. Pour over vegetables and toss well. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Roast for 40-45 minutes, mixing once half way through cook time, until lightly browned and easily pierced with a fork.
5. Sprinkle parsley on top just before serving.
Double Chocolate Carrot Bread
Makes 2 loaves
4 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 cups grated carrots
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two (8” x 4”) loaf pans.
2. In a large bowl, combine flour, cocoa, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, combine carrots, oil, eggs, milk, and vanilla.
3. Stir carrot mixture into the flour mixture, just until blended. Mix in the chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared pans.
4. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
5. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely.
HG editor Karen Keb cooks, writes, and gardens from Prairie Turnip Farm in Osage County, Kansas. E-mail her at email@example.com