Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Market Report: Rainbow Carrots

Carrots get a bad rap. Though delicious and nutritious, their omnipresence and bright color often lumps them into the category of “childhood snack”. Raw carrots are the territory of preschool sandwich baggies; though obviously, carrots for adults do exist–I just don’t see them on menus as often as I might like.

I’m trying to change all that! Last week I put simply peeled rainbow carrots on a tray with homemade green goddess dipping sauce and served them at a swanky event I was catering for the Italian leather notebook company, Moleskine. Guess which canape we ran out of fastest? Beating out truffle mousse cups, macaroons and white bean crostini, carrots took top billing.

When it comes to carrots, what are we afraid of? Are they not as sophisticated as turnips, as flavorful as rutabagas, as comforting as kale? Even potatoes don’t suffer so from the Kindergarten Curse (though they have their own PR problems).

I enjoy cooking and eating carrots because they are so amazingly versatile. Raw, juiced, roasted or steamed, their sweetness is pronounced without being overwhelming and does wonders when added to a pan of tomatoes. Though carrots aren’t truly in season until the summer, they’re commonly stored over the winter and you can find them at many markets throughout the year. Because they’re so easy to store, I nearly always have a carrot or two on hand, for adding flavor to stocks, soups, stews and sauces.

Carrots’ colors are as diverse as their uses–though we mostly know the orange type (developed by, who else, the Dutch in the 17th century). Many strains are naturally red, yellow, white or purple but can be easily bred to highlight a single color. I love to choose a few hues for a plate of crisp crudité or to adorn a simple green salad; no other vegetable (save radishes) comes in such a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. And to lay the biggest misconception to rest: what you commonly find in supermarket bags labeled as “baby carrots” aren’t baby carrots at all, but large carrots industrially re-sized and shaved down into bite-size pieces. When you see a recipe for baby carrots, make sure you’re buying real young carrots (look for the tops still attached) and not the tough, processed variety!

I’ve used carrots in everything from chicken stock to spring rolls, pickled blaze carrots in LA and grated Indian pink carrots to naturally sweeten boar stew in Vermont, but rarely have I featured carrots as a main ingredient. Though versatile in a supporting role, nothing showcases carrots’ flexibility so much as featuring them in savory-sweet cupcakes.

This past May, I joined Mr. Mix’s family in Chicago, and spent the day with my cousins making Mother’s Day cupcakes. To keep things healthier we incorporated carrots, coconut and applesauce into the mix, ending up with a muffin-like cupcake that kept all the great flavor and sweetness while delivering a big dose of beta carotene (and affection). As you can see, we made a bit of a mess in the kitchen, but the kids had a blast and learned a bit about baking along the way.

As part of the America’s Test Kitchen “Dish It Your Way” Blogger Challenge, I’ll be making these again soon for the woman who always kept my lunchbox stocked with carrot sticks–my own Mamma!

Carrot Coconut Cupcakes (makes 2 dozen)

  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 2 Eggs
  • 3 TB Vegetable Oil
  • ¼ cup Applesauce
  • ¼ cup Buttermilk
  • 1 t Vanilla
  • 1 t Cinnamon
  • ¼ t Allspice
  • 1 cup Flour
  • ¼ t Salt
  • 1 t Baking Soda
  • ¼ t Baking Powder
  • 1 cup Carrots (grated)
  • 1 cup + 2 TB Unsweetened Coconut (shredded)
  • 24 Cupcake Liners

For the cupcakes:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line your cupcake tins with paper molds. Combine the first six ingredients and mix by hand until smooth. Add the grated carrots and one cup of coconut into your mixture and mix. Sift together the dry ingredients, then slowly incorporate them into the wet mixture until it just comes together. Fill your cupcake liners evenly (no more than halfway full).

Bake the cupcakes for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for a few minutes before removing to a wire rack.

For the topping:

While the cupcakes are baking, spread the remaining 2 TB coconut on a small baking sheet and put in the oven for about five minutes or until lightly browned. Remove and cool. I’ve also been known to track down special cute-as-can-be carrot-shaped candies as an alternate topping. Try finding them at NY Cake–they even have mail order!

For the frosting:

  • 1 stick Salted Butter (room temperature)
  • 1 (8 oz) Cream Cheese (room temperature)
  • 2 t Vanilla
  • 2 cups Powdered Sugar
  • Coconut or Candy Garnish

Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Add the vanilla and thoroughly mix. Lower the speed and slowly add the powdered sugar. Blend to combine. Using a pastry bag, frost the cupcakes and top with toasted coconut or carrot candies.

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