The carrot is a root vegetable that is a member of the parsley family. They are usually orange in color and long and slender, but heirloom varieties can range in color and shape, such as purple and round. They have been renowned for more than 2,000 year for their healthy properties and high beta carotene content - a precursor to Vitamin A.
Carrots may be eaten raw or cooked and add sweetness and color to stews, soups, stir-fries, salads and more. They can also be boiled, grilled, braised, simmered, steamed, pureéd, roasted, sauteéd, etc.
When purchasing them select ones with bright and moist greens; the carrots should be smooth and firm, not flexible. Store carrots in a plastic bag in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator. Avoid storing them near apples, which emit ethylene gas that can give carrots a bitter flavor.
Carrots are one-third of the mire poix, a common French flavoring base of onions, celery and carrots. Carrots also pair well with allspice, almonds, anise, bacon, basil, bay leaf, butter, chicken, chile peppers, honey, and much more.
While we usually associate carrots with the color orange, in fact, carrots grow in a host of other colors including white, yellow, red, or purple, the latter being the color of the original variety. The carrot is a plant with a thick, fleshy, deeply colored root, which grows underground, and feathery green leaves that emerge above ground. It is known scientifically as Daucus carota, a name that can be traced back to ancient Roman writings of the 3rd century.
Selecting and Buying
Choose a site that gets full sun (carrots will tolerate light shade but won't do as well). Soil should be light, with a pH of 5.8 to 6.8 (see "How to Have Your Soil Tested").
Dig to a depth of at least 12 inches, and remove all traces of rocks and other debris - even a small twig could injure a carrot's growing tip, stunting the root or making it fork.
Add plenty of organic matter; it will lighten heavy soils and increase the moisture retention of sandy ones. Carrots grow sweeter and less fibrous in soil that remains moist.
Sow carrot seeds directly about two to three weeks before the last expected frost in cool regions; in warm climates, you can plant in fall, winter or spring. (Like most root crops, carrots rarely appear as started plants in nurseries.)
Speed germination, which can take 10 days or more, by soaking seeds in water for 6 hours before you plant them.
Make early sowings shallow to capture warmth from the sun; sprinkle the seeds on the soil surface, tamp them gently and cover them with a thin layer of finely sifted compost. If planting later, when the soil has warmed up, plant seeds between 1/4 and 1/2 inch deep.
Thin seedlings before the tops become entwined: Either clip off the greens with scissors, or pull the roots very gently from the ground so you don't disturb the remaining plants. Allow 3 to 4 inches between carrots, depending on the variety (check the seed packet for details).
Spray young plants once with compost tea (see "How to Make Compost Tea") to ensure good growth, and mulch with compost to deter weeds and retain moisture. Young plants need at least an inch of water a week, but cut back on watering as they near maturity (check the seed packet for timing).
Begin harvesting carrots when they've turned deep orange.
Preparation and Use
Carrots are delicious eaten raw or cooked. Beta-carotene is not destroyed by cooking; in fact, cooking breaks down the fiber, making this nutrient and carrots' sugars more available, thus also making them taste sweeter. Take care not to overcook carrots, however, to ensure that they retain their maximum flavor and nutritional content. If they are not organically grown, peel them; most all conventionally grown carrots are grown using pesticides and other chemicals. If the stem end is green, it should be cut away as it will be bitter.
Conserving and Storing
Carrots are hardy vegetables that will keep longer than many others if stored properly. The trick to preserving the freshness of carrot roots is to minimize the amount of moisture they lose. To do this, make sure to store them in the coolest part of the refrigerator in a plastic bag or wrapped in a paper towel, which will reduce the amount of condensation that is able to form. They should be able to keep fresh for about two weeks. Carrots should also be stored away from apples, pears, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene gas since it will cause them to become bitter.
If you purchase carrot roots with attached green tops, the tops should be cut off before storing in the refrigerator since they will cause the carrots to wilt prematurely as they pull moisture from the roots. While the tops can be stored in the refrigerator, kept moist by being wrapped in a damp paper, they should really be used soon after purchase since they are fragile and will quickly begin to wilt.