What's up, Doc: Carrot adds its orangy goodness to dishes from soup to desserts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So here it is, the latest sensation among ingredients, the veggie that has food mavens clustering around exhibition kitchens in trendy restaurants and rummaging through the produce in upscale supermarkets.

It's the carrot.

It's inexpensive, it's nutritious, it's available all year 'round and, most important from a culinary perspective, it gets into more dishes than any other vegetable except for the onion, with which it is often partnered.

Chopped carrots and onions, often with the addition of celery, make up mirepoix, the sauteed mixture of aromatic vegetables that form the start of countless dishes in classic cuisine. Carrots with onions and, often again, celery flavors soups and cooking liquids that in turn become sauces.

The carrot rates a nod over the onion in one respect: Alone among vegetables, it goes into a popular dessert, the omnipresent carrot cake.

Along with its other remarkable qualities, the carrot has a higher sugar content than any other vegetable but the beet. As a consequence, it makes an easy transition into sweet dishes. A traditional recipe, now largely forgotten, is carrot flan or pie, a crust filled with a sweetened puree, sometimes covered with thin slices of glazed carrot. This can be served as a side dish or, in more sugary versions, as dessert.

The carrot has been cast in supporting roles for so long that no one believes it has star potential. But it may have dramatic possibilities: Carotene, the substance that gives the carrot its bright orange color, is getting a lot of attention from researchers and food faddists.

The theory is that the antioxidant qualities of carotene are valuable in preventing a number of serious diseases. The contention is less than proven, but adding a few more carrots to the diet certainly can't hurt.

Properly made, the carrot becomes a sensation. With the following general procedure, you won't be able to make enough carrots to satisfy family and guests.

Glazed carrots: With a vegetable peeler, shave off the skin of as many carrots as you wish to cook. Be generous. Slice them into fairly thin rounds. Place in a large frying pan with enough water barely to cover them. Add salt to taste. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter and about 1 tablespoon of sugar for a large pan.

Proportions don't matter greatly, but you don't want so much sugar as to make the dish cloying. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until the water evaporates and the carrots are tender. The sugar and the butter will form a caramel in the pan.

Continue to cook, tossing, until the carrots are lightly browned and well glazed. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Serve as a side-dish with practically anything.

Peas and carrots: This is probably the most boring of vegetable side dishes, but it can be worth eating. Prepare the carrots as directed in glazed carrots.

I use small frozen peas in loose packages; place the peas, unthawed, in a large frying pan about 1 layer deep. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss over brisk heat until the liquid evaporates and the peas are heated through. Serve mixed with or along with the glazed carrots.

Carrots Vichy: This is an entry from the classic French kitchen. The carrots are cooked as in glazed carrots but, in principle, with the highly alkaline mineral water from Vichy. (It was imported in the days before mineral water became fashionable, but I can't recall seeing it lately.)

Other cooks simulate the effect by adding a pinch of baking soda to the cooking water or even forgetting about it altogether.

BAnother way to put carrots in the spotlight is with a puree, which provides an interesting taste and texture contrast to a vegetable garniture.

Carrot puree Makes 6 servings

4 large or 6 regular carrots

1/2 large sweet yellow onion, sliced thin

2 tablespoons butter

grated zest of 1/2 orange

1 or 2 tablespoons orange juice

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon brown sugar

salt, white pepper to taste

With vegetable peeler, shave off skin of carrots. Slice carrots thinly. Place vegetables in saucepan with a little water; cook slowly, covered, until very soft. Drain vegetables well. Place vegetables in food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients and puree until smooth. Serve at once, or pack in a casserole and allow to cool. To reheat, bake at 325 Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes.

L Other possible flavorings include vanilla, nutmeg and herbs.

Puree may be spread into an 8-inch unbaked pie shell and baked for about 30 minutes at 350 Fahrenheit, until lightly browned.

Those willing to experiment could try a sweet version by omitting onion and adding 2 more medium carrots. Increase sugar to taste. Omit pepper and all but a pinch of salt. This, too, may be baked in a pie shell and, if you like, top may be covered with overlapping layers of thin slices of carrots, cooked according to directions for glazed carrots.

Two Los Angeles chefs -- Patrick Healy of Champagne and Gerri Gilliland of Gilliland's and Lula -- spoke highly of pickled carrots. Mr. Healy serves baby carrots, preserved in sweet vinegar, with pate instead of traditional cornichons (tiny gherkins). At Lula's, guests immediately are served plates of carrots in the Mexican style with hot peppers.

@Marinated carrots Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced on diagonal

2/3 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup oil

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 package Italian seasoned salad dressing mix

1/4 cup chopped parsley

Boil carrots in water to cover for about 5 minutes, until tender but still crisp. Drain and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Drain. Mix together vinegar, oil, sugar, onion, dressing mix. Pour over carrots and toss. Cover and let marinate overnight in refrigerator. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.

Carrot cake has achieved immense popularity. For a change, here is a probable ancestor, still encountered in Vienna. In this recipe, too, you really don't taste carrots. They are there for color and moisture.

Karottentorte

Makes 1 8-inch cake

4 eggs, separated

5/8 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups ground walnuts or filberts

1 cup grated carrots (about 2 medium carrots)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup twice-sifted cornstarch (sift, then measure)

chocolate frosting of your choice

Heat oven to 300 Fahrenheit. Heavily butter and lightly flour an 8-inch springform pan.

Beat egg yolks and half the sugar until very fluffy and pale. Beat in nuts, carrots and vanilla. Separately beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining sugar until firm peaks form. Fold into batter, lightly but thoroughly. Fold in cornstarch, lightly but thoroughly.

Turn batter into prepared pan. Bake 1 1/2 hours or until cake tests done. Let rest in pan for 10 minutes. Then run a thin knife around edge and release rim. Turn cake onto a rack. Let cake rest overnight before frosting.

Note: This type of flourless cake can be quite fragile. The cake may sink, leaving a raised rim, which is simply sliced off before frosting.

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