Last Saturday, I bought a bunch of carrots at the farmers market. Bright and tender, they had a plume of gorgeous greens sprouting from their tops.
I know how important it is to cut the green tops from root vegetables the moment you get them home, because they sap sweetness and moisture from the roots. Indeed, from a botanical point of view, the entire point of a root vegetable is to support the plant’s development of flowers and then seeds — i.e. to create the next generation of carrots, beets, radishes, etc. — and not to taste sweet and lovely for our benefit. A root is simply a fuel pack for the green stuff growing out of its crown.
But once I’d lopped the fronds off my carrots, I could not bring myself to compost them; they looked so fresh and vital. Besides, with three young men bounding around the house this summer, our kitchen has started to feel a bit like the pit stop at the Indy 500, with my job to pump as much caloric fuel into their bodies as quickly as possible before they dash off to their next endeavors. It seemed silly to throw away anything edible.
And, as it happens, carrot tops are edible. It makes sense. Carrots are related to parsley, dill, cilantro, coriander and chervil, as well as to fennel and celery. In other words, they come from a family of plants whose leaves, stems, roots, flowers and seeds we all eat, although millennia of selective breeding have prioritized one aspect of each plant above the others —celery for its stems, celery root for its root, cilantro for its leaves, and so on.
Carrots are also closely related to Queen Anne’s Lace, a fact that gives rise to my favorite bit of carrot-family gossip. Queen Anne’s Lace didn’t exist on this continent until settlers brought carrot seeds over from Europe and began cultivating them in their kitchen gardens. Some of those carrot seeds blew free, went rogue and evolved into the freewheeling wildflowers that now dot our summer meadows like giant snowflakes.
Once or twice, I’ve actually made pesto from carrot tops. This was back when I was cooking at a summer camp and we often took a nose-to-tail approach to our farm’s harvest. We did it for fun and flex, and because carrot-top pesto sounds cool and kids go for that kind of thing when they’re away from home. I followed recipes that I found online, made a variation on basil pesto, with carrot tops substituting for the herb, and succeeded in demonstrating that carrot tops are a disappointing substitute for basil in classic pesto.
This time I wanted to try something different. My favorite recipes for roasted carrots pair the vegetable with Moroccan or Thai flavors. I figured the same spice combinations would marry nicely with the tops. This time I wasn’t wrong. On Sunday night, I tossed a grain salad with a Moroccan-spiced carrot-top paste, and it was delicious.
Yet for me, midsummer is above all a time for pureed soups. I love that they can be served warm on a cool evening, then eaten as ice-cold leftovers two days later when the thermometer pops back above 90 degrees. So, I made a super-simple carrot soup, with onions, butter, carrots, stock and coconut milk, then swirled a dab of Thai-flavored carrot-top paste into it. The result was exactly what I’ve been craving — the simple, pure flavor of the carrots offset by the lively, aromatic spicing of the sauce.
Perhaps it was just my imagination, but I thought I tasted something else in that bowlful as well, a hint of the rooted-yet-free, frugal wild-child spirit of the carrot family, a perfect embodiment of summertime cooking.
Carrot-Coconut Soup With a Thai Carrot-Tops Swirl
For the soup
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
- 1 bunch carrots, washed, trimmed and sliced (green tops reserved)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon cumin
1. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the chopped onion and ginger, reduce the heat to low and gently cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is quite soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. (In the meantime, you can begin preparing the sauce.)
2. When the onion is soft, add the carrots, coriander and cumin, stir to coat well, then raise the heat to medium and cook until the carrots begin to turn golden, about 6 minutes.
3. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Cook until the carrots can be pierced with a knife.
4. Working in small batches, transfer the carrot mixture to the pitcher of a blender and whirr until completely smooth (be very careful, as hot liquid can erupt if the pitcher is more than one-quarter full at a time).
5. Return the soup to the pot, add the coconut milk and heat just until barely simmering. Serve immediately, drizzled with carrot-greens paste. Or chill and serve ice cold.
For the Thai carrot-tops paste:
- 1 loosely packed cup carrot tops, tender leaves only
- ½ teaspoon salt, plus more for blanching
- 1 bunch mint, leaves and tender stems only (about 1 cup, loosely packed)
- 1 small bunch cilantro
- 1 tablespoon roughly chopped ginger
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 jalapeno, stem and seeds removed
- 2 tablespoons lime juice, plus more to taste
- ½ teaspoon each salt and sugar, plus more to taste
- ½ cup grapeseed or other mild oil
1. Bring a small saucepan of generously salted water to a boil. Add the carrot tops, return to a boil and blanche 1½ minutes. Drain and refresh under cold running water.
2. Combine the blanched carrot tops and all the remaining ingredients in the pitcher of a blender. Whirr until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning. Put unused portion in a resealable bag and store in the freezer up to 3 months.