Saturday, February 9, 2013

Dirty Carrots: Theory and Practice

I'd seen them occasionally in the markets here. Once, during the year when I wasn't tasting anything, I even bought some carrottes de Paris at the covered market up the hill, fascinated by the fact that they were about an inch across, but also an inch long. I have no idea what they tasted like, though.

Nor do I know why I bought my first bag of dirty carrots down at the outdoor market. Boredom with winter's limited supply of vegetables? Maybe. Or maybe I was just fascinated by the name, which I thought was a mistake. Not that they weren't dirty: sand clung to them. It's just that other stands labelled them carrottes sablées, sandy carrots, which was more accurate, and this one had omitted the b and, thus, rendered them "salted carrots" instead. But then I saw others that actually said "carrottes sales," or dirty carrots.

I don't even remember what I used them in the first time. I took them home and scrubbed the crap out of them, resulting in quite a mud-puddle in the sink, then peeled them and cut them up. They were astounding. They were the carrotiest carrots I'd ever had. What on earth?

And now that it's winter again and there isn't much to get at the market, I've been picking them up again. Not too long ago, I made a huge minestrone in which they starred. Or, rather, in which they starred the first time around. By the time I got around to the next plastic tub of leftovers, the carrots in the soup were so sweet that encountering them was like finding a bit of candy surrounded by vegetables in a sweet broth. It was just on the edge of being unpleasant, but the balance was still just right (and, now that I'm thinking of it, the very mild acidity of olive oil poured into the soup might have tilted the balance back just right: I'll file this thought away for next time).

Naturally, I became curious: why were these so far superior to other carrots, because, well, it wasn't the dirt, which I obviouslly wasn't eating. But if you look at them, there are a couple of clues.

First off, look at the tops. There's nothing to see. Most carrots sold in the market come with a healthy bunch of greens which the vendors obligingly cut off and trash (although I've heard that they make brilliant tempura). These just have withered, browned stubs of vegetation. They also have spidery roots coming from them. These carrots have stayed in the ground longer than the others. But why?

A home gardener I contacted offered an explanation: there was a theory that leaving carrots in the ground for a freeze made them much sweeter. And you can see this, almost, in the picture: obviously the greenery up top would get hit with the freeze. Any nutrition in the form of sugar would go to the root, the orange part, and get stored there. (This could also apply to beets, but I happen to hate beets with an almost uncontrollable passion, so I'm not going to find out.) Once dug up, the carrots would hold a long time in cold storage, too, I think. Left in the field forever, though, they'd just rot: the freeze would pretty much take care of their re-sprouting, I assume.

I have no idea if carrots treated this way are available in the U.S., but if you grow them at home, this might be a worthy experiment. Meanwhile, I had plans for this batch here. I've discovered that not all beef sold in France can double as chewing gum. The secret is to go to a butcher, not the supermarket. Thus, the first time I made a classic beef stew with carrots here, I had several meals worth of unpleasant eating, although the taste was fine. This is even something of a tradition, if James Beard is to be believed. A friend of a friend recently sent me his memoir, Delights and Prejudices, in which he recounts his shock at finally making it to Paris and discovering that all the beef, especially the steak, was tough because the cattle were raised so very little fat got into the meat. But butchers and supermarkets tend to differ in this, and I accidentally got some stewing beef a couple of years ago at a butcher near the market and although it was a whole euro per kilo more expensive, that's what I do for stew beef on the rare wintry occasion of making beef stew.

The one I make is from one of the few French cookbooks in my house (surprisingly, I don't have anything by Julia Child here), Michael Roberts' Parisian Home Cooking, and it's not Julia's two-day boeuf bourgignon spectacular (which I also want to make some day), but a simple deal of onions, carrots, a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and peppercorns, and, of course, the beef, stewed in a whole lot of white wine. Served on a bed of buttered, parsleyed egg noodles, it's a great winter dish. Here are some leftovers which I heated last night.

It was way too much, especially since, for balance, I made a salad of bitter winter greens, diced pear, toasted walnuts, and cubed Roquefort (Carles, made by one of the few families that ages their cheese entirely within the caves of the village of Roquefort) with a vinaigrette made out of walnut vinegar, mustard, some herbes de Provence, and olive oil.

I ate too much, I admit, and once you start dealing with a kilo of beef and some Carles Roquefort, you're out of broke-but-poor cooking -- only just at French prices, totally at American prices, I'm afraid. And then I had the temerity to pair it with a Mas de la Serranne Clos des Immortelles 2010, whose complexity perfectly complimented the simplicity of the rest of the meal. That's also beyond the broke-but-poor barrier at €10 or so, but this was a long-delayed New Year's feast I'd dreamed up before my taste went on the blink over the holidays. I don't eat like this every day, promise.

At any rate, I have some dirty carrots left over and since they mesh so well with beef, I think I'll haul out one of my favorite Chinese dishes next, the one I call Beef with Sexy Vegetables, because the title Irene Kuo uses in her great cookbook is Beef with Spicy Vegetables, which doesn't quite communicate its magnificence.

Then again, maybe it's time to start experimenting with tagines...

UPDATE: According to commenters on Facebook, carrots will eventually turn woody if left in the ground, but will grow more greens, even though they're inedible by the time they come up. Everyone seems to think it's at least partially due to the variety of carrot. Someone noted eating them in India, where, obviously, frost pays no part, and that reminded me that, because I don't eat sweets, I forgot to mention carrot halwah, a Persian-inspired north Indian dish.


  1. Magnificent! Love this kind of cooking. I assume by your description that your sense of smell and taste are still back?

  2. I'm very happy to see you having such a nice feast. Maybe I need to grow some carrots this year.

  3. I found some dirty carrots in the market last year and fell in love with them. They're from an organic grower so it's a matter of find the farmers market where they sell now (locations change) and watch the weather (no good if too much rain).
    I agree, incredible flavor....

  4. Sounds like carrottes deCréances. There is a show on TV5monde, Epicerie Fine, where chef Guy Martin investigates the provenance of various foods. His show on the carrottes du Sable was a good one. They are grown on beach dunes in Normandy.


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