Ever since we had kids, we’ve had carrots. For the past two decades, I doubt we’ve logged more than a week without carrots in our fridge. These have typically been so-called baby carrots, which (as most everyone knows) are actually adult carrots cut into small pieces, then tumbled smooth like river rocks. Modern life being what it is, you can watch a YouTube video of the entire field-to-bag transformation, including the part where “rough stone rollers” remove the carrots’ peels before they are conveyed to “smooth stone rollers” for polishing.
Baby carrots were invented in 1986 by Mike Yurosek, a California farmer who was fed up with having to throw away all his damaged, misshapen and thus unmarketable carrots — some 400 tons of waste per day. His clever solution to his predicament is the main reason why carrots are now the fourth most widely sold vegetable in the United States, after potatoes, tomatoes and onions.
For several centuries before baby carrots began to be packed into school lunches and piled onto crudité platters at catered events across America, the vegetable was considered a foundation of the great European cuisines. Carrots comprise a third of the onion-carrot-celery flavor base known as mirepoix in France and sofrito in Italy, and thus these literal roots are at the figurative root of hundreds of sauces, braises, soups and stews. But carrots grow happily in a range of climates, and keep well post-harvest, so they turn up in traditional northern European, Scandinavian, and Middle Eastern dishes as well.
I haven’t cooked many carrots in my life (apart from the times when I minced them into a mirepoix or sofrito, or simmered them into a soup). I disliked cooked carrots intensely as a kid, perhaps because the ones I was offered were boiled and/or served as part of those packaged peas-and-carrots medleys. No cooked carrot dish subsequently came along to change my mind, until about a decade ago, when I tasted a phenomenal roasted carrot and avocado salad at ABC Kitchen in New York City.
The following summer, a cook at one of the summer-camp kitchens I managed suddenly realized that several dozen more people than he’d planned for would be showing up for dinner. His team had already made several gallons of chili — but it wouldn’t be enough. He needed to bulk up the meal, pronto, and had only a 25-pound bag of carrots on hand. I offered to help. He asked if I could please boil them up.
“Absolutely not,” I said. Instead, I offered to roast them — over the outdoor fire (which is where all the meals at this particular camp were cooked), in a pan that was the size of a sled and looked like a sooty, banged-up gutter. I got to work, confident that I was channeling the ABC Kitchen recipe perfectly. I later discovered that I was way off. Indeed, I still have no idea where my inspiration for the particular combination of aromatics I used that day came from. What I do know is that the resulting dish was a huge hit. The campers ate every last carrot and pouted when we ran out of seconds.
Citrus makes this a perfect recipe for this time of year, and, because the dish can be eaten warm or at room temperature, it’s a great make-ahead for holiday tables. Regardless of season, I’m happy to have a delicious excuse to keep a supply of carrots in my fridge — even if the roots, like my kids, are no longer babies.
Roast Carrots with Citrus and Coriander
- 1 pound carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthwise if large
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- ½ teaspoon red chili flakes, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 large or 2 small bay leaves
- 2 small oranges, halved
- 2 lemons, halved
- Roasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds for serving, optional
- Crème fraiche for serving, optional
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the carrots and cook about 12 minutes, or until a knife pierces through them fairly easily.
Meanwhile, in a mini food processor, or using an immersion blender and small cup, mash the garlic, coriander, chili, salt and pepper, oil and vinegar to form a rough paste. (Alternatively, you can mince the solid ingredients together on a cutting board, dampened with a little oil, then mix in remaining oil and vinegar.)
When the carrots are done, drain and place in a roasting pan, in a single layer. Rub with the garlic-coriander paste, then tear the bay leaf and add the pieces. Place the citrus, cut side down, on top of the carrots. Transfer to the oven and roast about 35 to 40 minutes, or until the carrots are brown on the bottom.
If you want to serve immediately, use a pair of tongs to squeeze the juice from the citrus halves onto the carrots. Or allow the whole pan to cool to room temperature and squeeze by hand. Serve sprinkled with seeds, topped with a dollop of crème fraiche, if desired.