Mouths to Feed: Classical Roots

By Celia Barbour

Sometimes cooking begins at the end: You have a vision of a particular dish in mind, and you set out to make it – to reach that ideal.

Carrot soup

Carrot soup

Other times, you start with some ingredients and allow whatever urgency they may embody (like: if you don’t use them up by Tuesday, they will rot) to fuel your efforts. Your creativity is not inspired by an imagined goal but generated by the material present.

If Plato and Aristotle had had a cooking show, they could have argued over which approach was nobler, though nothing would have come of it. Halfway through, Plato would have stormed out. He disliked creative endeavors of all sorts.

Not that you should take my word for it. Although I majored in philosophy, I basically rented a mental storage unit the year I graduated, and moved all my excess ideas into it. I’ve since lost the key.

Carrot jam

Carrot jam

Nonetheless, a memory of the old philosophers was haunting my thoughts the other morning when I opened my refrigerator door and discovered an ontological (or was it empirical?) crisis. In my hand was a bag of new, fresh carrots from my CSA. In the crisper were several dozen other carrots – some cracked, others quite flimsy.

I quickly tossed in the new ones and shut the door, but too late: guilt was swelling inside me. I hate allowing food to go bad. I hate being cavalier about waste.

All that day, I thought about what to do with the old carrots. Like all root vegetables, carrots are so hardy that they seldom become completely inedible. But a carrot without its crunch is definitely a compromised carrot.

Of course, I realized I could make carrot-ginger soup. Carrot-ginger soup has been a staple of hippie restaurants and high-end eateries alike since the 1980s. And, yes, it is good, but the very thought of it bored me. I’ve had carrot ginger soup too many times.

Carrot fries

Carrot fries

Finally, I pulled out the old carrots and set them on my counter. A few were so far gone they went straight into the compost. The rest I stared at. At last, I queried them: What do you want to become?

As it happened, I had just recently pulled a pan of sliced peaches from the oven. I’d taken a risk buying peaches this late in the season, and lo, they were mealy. But roasting them fixed that! Their flavor became lush and concentrated, and, instead of turning to mush, as they would have if I’d sautéed them, they were silky-firm in texture.

Did the carrots want to give it a go? We debated the pros and cons, and eventually agreed that they did. So I washed them, cut the thick ones lengthwise, tossed them in olive oil and salt, and arranged them on the same baking sheet. In they went, along with a couple of quartered onions and a beet that had gotten separated from its mates. I forgot about them for awhile, and by the time I pulled them out the smaller ones around the edges had started to burn. No matter: they all tasted great – rich, caramelized, and slightly chewy.

Into a big pot they went, along with some broth and, yes, some grated ginger (I debated using cumin or curry instead or as well – both are wonderful with carrots. But I had lots of ginger in my fridge, so it won out.) Ten minutes later, I dumped everything from the pot into my blender, and blasted it until it was completely smooth.

Thanks to the beet, the color was stunning, like a ripe papaya. But the flavor was a little flat, so I added a raw, tart apple that was too gnarled for my kids to eat. It was just what the soup needed. That and a $100,000 philosophy degree, which had allowed me to engage some wizened old vegetables in a fruitful Socratic dialogue.

Roasted Carrot-Ginger Soup

2 lbs. carrots, sliced lengthwise if large

1 onion, quartered

2 garlic cloves

1 beet, quartered

3 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

1 quart chicken or vegetable broth, or water

1-2 inches fresh ginger root, skin scraped off

½ teaspoon cumin or curry powder, optional

1 tart apple

  1. Preheat the oven to 425˚. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables with the olive oil, salt, and pepper, then spread them on a baking sheet. When the oven is hot, transfer the vegetables to it and roast for 20 minutes, or until just starting to burn at the edges, tossing and turning them with a spatula halfway through.
  2. Transfer the vegetables to a pot and add the broth. Grate the ginger into the pot, and add the cumin or curry, if using. Bring to a boil over medium-high then lower the heat and let simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Working in batches, transfer the contents of the pot to a blender and blend until completely smooth. (Be careful to only fill the blender 1/3 of the way, otherwise the hot liquid will splash out when you turn it on.)
  4. Cut a slice from the apple, then cut the rest into chunks and add to the blender and purée until smooth. Re-warm the soup on the stove, adding more water or broth if it seems too thick. Meanwhile, cut the apple slice into matchsticks. Serve the soup hot, garnished with the apple matchsticks.

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