The Cream Of The Crop

24th June 2011

Carrots are in season in the UK for eleven months of the year, with just a short gap in supply during May. They’re a veg box staple, a dinner table regular, and it’s hard, sometimes, to enthuse about them…

…but new season carrots, available from the beginning of June to the end of August are something else entirely – fresh, sweet and aromatic, fantastic cooked simply and served with butter, and equally delicious in a range of tasty recipes.

June and July are two of the busiest months for British carrot farmers – when they literally work day and night to ensure that new season carrots reach our tables in perfect condition. To prevent the tender skin being damaged by the sun, farmers harvest at midnight. The carrots are plucked from the ground by their foliage to prevent the fragile roots from being harmed, with the pitch black field lit only by the headlights of the harvesting machine. The young carrots are then packed and on shelf within 24 hours of harvest, making them one of the freshest products you can buy.

Older carrots have a more pronounced flavour, and the winter crop has a stronger flavour still, making it perfect for stews and soups. New season carrots shouldn’t be peeled – there’s so much flavour packed into their skins – but just steamed or boiled gently for three to five minutes (depending on how crunchy you like them). Watch their bright orange colour intensify as they cook. Their delicate flavour can be complemented with a little butter and zest of orange, or tarragon and thyme. They’re also, of course, delicious simply eaten raw.

The health benefits of carrots have been recognised for centuries. In World War II, the Ministry of Food even devised a cartoon character called Dr Carrot to educate the public about eating healthily during rationing. He carried a bag full of Vitamin A to stress its importance. Today Channel 4’s Dr Christian Jessen (Supersize vs Superskinny, Embarrassing Bodies) is effectively the new Dr Carrot, working with the British Carrot Growers’ Association to reinforce the ‘carrots are good for you’ message. Here’s why:

Of all fruit and veg, carrots are the best source of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant converted into vitamin A in the body (an 80g serving contains more than twice the recommended daily amount an adult needs). The anti-oxidant action of beta-carotene helps to act against age-accelerating free radicals so it will ensure a healthy glow to your skin, and the Vitamin A in carrots is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system.

Research shows, oddly, that more carotenoids (such as beta-carotene) are absorbed by the body when a salad is eaten with a full-fat dressing drizzled over it than without, so you needn’t feel too guilty about dipping your carrots in a dollop of mayonnaise!

As well as being good for your health, buying British carrots is also good for the environment. Carrots were given a carbon rating of just 45g of carbon per 1kg by Farmers Weekly – compared to 80g for onions, 240g for potatoes and 15,000g for beef. Aside from doing your bit to help in the battle to reduce climate change and support British farmers and the economy, buying seasonal British produce just makes good sense if you want fresh, great tasting, reasonably priced food.

Roasted Carrot and Houmous Dip

Serves 4 • Preparation: 10 minutes • Cooking: 15 minutes

350g carrots, washed, trimmed & cut into 2cm chunks • 3 cloves garlic, unpeeled • 2tsp cumin seeds • 2tbsp olive oil • 1 (410g) can of chick peas in water, drained • juice of 1 lemon • salt & freshly ground black pepper

For the crudités: 1 carrot, peeled & cut into batons • 1 green pepper, cut into batons • 10 cherry tomatoes • 10 button mushrooms

1. Preheat oven to 220ºC/Fan 200C/400ºF/Gas Mark 6. Place carrots in a small roasting tin, add the garlic, cumin and 1 tbsp of the olive oil, then toss to mix – tuck the garlic under the carrots. Roast for 15-20 mins or until the carrots are lightly charred and tender.

2. Add the chick peas to the tin and stir well to capture all the cooking juices. Slip garlic from its papery skin and discard the skin. Transfer to a food processor, add remaining oil and lemon juice, then whizz on the pulse setting to form a creamy puree. Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper.

3. Transfer to a bowl and serve with the vegetable crudités.

Slaw Salad with Mango and Chilli

Serves 4 • Preparation: 10 minutes • Cooking: 2 minutes

1tbsp sunflower oil • 3tbsp sunflower seeds • 4tbsp pumpkin seeds • 225g white cabbage, cored & finely shredded • 2 carrots, peeled & coarsely grated • 1 firm medium mango, peeled, stoned & coarsely grated • 1 red chilli, deseeded & finely sliced • 140g bag watercress, spinach & rocket salad • Juice of 1/2 lime • 2tbsp fresh coriander, chopped • salt & freshly ground pepper

1. Heat 1 tsp of the oil in a frying pan. Add sunflower and pumpkin seeds and stir fry for 1 minute or until they pale golden. Remove from heat and leave to cool.

2. Place cabbage, carrot, mango, chilli and salad leaves in a bowl. Add the toasted seeds.

3. Add the lime juice and coriander to the remaining oil and season to taste. Add to the bowl of salad ingredients and toss well to mix. Serve immediately.

Roasted Carrot, Spinach and Feta Salad

Serves 4 • Preparation: 10 minutes • Cooking: 25 minutes

450g new season carrots, cut into chunks • 1 red onion, cut into wedges • 1 red pepper, deseeded & cut into wedges • 4tbsp olive oil • 2 whole cloves garlic • 3tbsp pumpkin seeds • 1tsp cumin seeds • juice half a lemon • 1 tsp runny honey • salt and freshly ground black pepper • 100g bag baby spinach leaves • 100g feta cheese crumbled • 2tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves

1. Preheat oven to 220C/Fan 200C/Gas Mark 7. Place carrots, onion, pepper and half the oil in a large roasting tin. Season well. Toss together until everything is coated in oil. Roast for 15 minutes. Stir in the seeds and garlic and roast for a further 10 minutes until the carrots are just tender but still have a bit of bite.

2. Take the vegetables out of the oven and remove the garlic cloves. On a chopping board, slip the garlic from the papery skin and using the blade of a knife work it to a smooth paste. Put the garlic paste in a small bowl with the remaining oil, lemon juice and honey and whisk together with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Empty the spinach leaves into a large serving bowl, add the roasted vegetables, feta and chopped mint, and pour over the dressing. Toss lightly together until mixed

Carrot and Beetroot Salad

Serves 4 • Preparation: 10 minutes + 15 minutes marinating • Cooking: none

350g new season carrots, trimmed • 350g raw beetroot, peeled & trimmed • 2 shallots, peeled & finely chopped • 2 tsp cumin seeds • 2 tbsp olive oil • 1 tbsp sherry or red wine vinegar • 1 small bunch flat parsley, roughly chopped

1. Peel and trim the carrots and the beetroot, then coarsely grate both on a grater – wear rubber gloves if you don’t want pink hands! Alternatively, use a food processor fitted with a grating plate. Place the vegetables in a bowl, add the shallots.

2. Heat the cumin seeds in small pan until they are hot and smelling pungent. Remove from the heat and scatter over the vegetables. Add olive oil, vinegar and parsley, then toss well. Leave to marinate for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Tarragon-baked Chicken and Carrots

Serves 4 • Preparation: 10 minutes • Cooking: 25-30 minutes

400g bunch of new season carrots with tops • 2 tbsp olive oil • 1 clove garlic, chopped • zest & juice of 1 lemon • 20g pack fresh tarragon, trimmed & chopped • 50g butter, softened • 4 skin-on chicken breast fillets • salt & freshly ground black pepper

. Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan 170C/400F/ Gas Mark 5. Scrub the carrots clean and trim away the tops, then place carrots in a large roasting tin. Add the oil, garlic, lemon juice, a third of the tarragon and plenty of salt and ground black pepper, then toss well to mix.

2. Mix the butter with the lemon zest, the remaining tarragon and plenty of ground black pepper. Divide the butter into four, then use your fingers to push each quarter under the chicken skin. Lay the chicken breasts skin-side up on top of the carrots. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the carrots are lightly charred and the chicken golden and tender. Serve with green vegetables and new potatoes.

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