Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Root of the Problem (Roasted Carrots with Orange and Thyme)

The autumn is finally upon us and, as it is the season of the harvest, I've been finding myself increasingly drawn to the farmer's markets throughout Boston, welcome reflections of the Grower's Market back in Williamsport. Far be it for me to cast aspersions on the grocery, but there's an undeniable charm to being able to grab fresh, local produce while on a coffee break or waiting for the train home. While the market stalls still abound with treasures like ripe strawberries and luxuriously leafy kale, it was the humble carrot that most called to me this month; perhaps because a stand of kaleidoscope carrots caught my eye with its vivid contrasts of red, purple, orange, and yellow. It's been pointed out to me that my recipes seem almost single-minded in their focus on dinner and dessert, giving short shrift to the myriad accompaniments that help to make a full meal. This hasn't exactly been a conscious effort on my part, but rather the natural inclination towards the bigger and flashier set pieces that always draw one's attention. This month, I take a happy break from roasts and desserts to correct that oversight, and instead share one of the easiest, yet certainly tastiest little recipes in my repertoire. Roasted carrots with orange and thyme is an effortless creation that adds just the slightest spin to the comfortingly familiar. 

Don't I know you from somewhere?
Ever the agents of conformity, our ancestors bred their crops for select traits, uniform shapes and colors among them. This is how the standard carrot came to be orange and conical, the tomato perfectly round and red, and the potato white. Luckily, heirloom cultivars still exist that let us enjoy these produce favorites in all the wonderful variety of shapes and colors with which nature first endowed them. If you can find kaleidoscope carrots (check your local farmer's market!), they're well worth the effort, offering rainbow hues and fuller flavors. Historical evidence suggests carrots were first cultivated for the potent flavor of their seeds and greens well before we started in on the delicious taproots (after a few centuries of breeding for less woody cores, that is). The natural resiliency of root vegetables soon made them a staple crop throughout many cultures, offering the same sustaining cache of nutrients throughout the winter to humans that the tubers act to store for the plant itself. Slowly but surely, carrots worked their way from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean, the Iberian Peninsula, and ultimately the far-flung corners of Asia and the Americas. On Food and Cooking notes that virtually every edible vegetable is ultimately a relative of either the mint or carrot family, and with cousins such as parsley, fennel, dill, and coriander, it's easy to see where carrots derive their markedly herbaceous hint of flavor. 

As nature itnended?
The humility and ubiquity of carrots means there are no shortage of recipes available, but I was shocked to find just how many people still boil their vegetables. The decision to roast, instead, is an easy one. It always makes for quick assembly, quicker cleanup, and the ability to easily slip a side dish in the oven alongside whatever else you are preparing for dinner. In this recipe, however, the distinction is doubly important. Any American grade schooler is familiar with mushy carrots; crisp vegetables which once held promise, but through the basic and best-intentioned application of too much heat and too much liquid have been transmogrified into something limp and unappealing. I wasn't surprised to see that recipes for boiled and sautéed carrots are often accompanied by one-star reviews for soggy results. Many glazed carrot recipes even go so far as boiling the carrots, removing them, and then boiling the liquid some more to render the glaze. All that seemed like too much time, effort, and margin for error, to me; just let your oven do the work. The dry, pervasive heat of roasting ensures perfectly done carrots, every time, and as a side bonus you get crispy edges and golden Maillard browning reactions for extra flavor. Caramelization makes everything better.

Flavor profile
Carrots are imbued with undeniable natural sweetness (born of their purpose as a sugar reserve for the growing plant) paired with a hint of earthiness and a distinctive, verdant tang. This flavor profile lends itself so readily to pairing with oranges because of the delicate balancing act between them. The sweetness and tartness of each amplify the other while citrus brightness contrasts and lightens the muskier notes from the earth-bound roots. Adding some fresh thyme, or better yet licorice-y tarragon, helps split the difference, bringing extra woodsiness to the party and spurring everything to meld together in an elemental balance of flavors. These carrots pair beautifully with roasted meats, but I invite daring vegetarians to serve them with a green salad and crusty bread and call it a main course. Deceptively rustic, elegant presentation and superb flavors should win over any doubting guests. Garbed in radiant autumnal hues that echo turning leaves, perfumed with fruit and herbs, and gilded by the oven, this recipe offers a glamorous rendition of what's too often considered humble fare. Throw a spotlight on the supporting players and give this side a try.

Roasted to perfection

Roasted carrots with orange and thyme

If you can't find rainbow carrots, you can color things up by adding in parsnips and beets. Treat these other roots roughly the same way, but prepare them on separate pans: parsnips will take about five minutes longer to cook through than carrots, beets will take 10-20 minutes more than that, depending on their size. Also, be sure to wear rubber gloves if you work with beets, or your hands will be magenta for days. Serves 4-6.

1 pound slender carrots, cleaned and peeled
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 orange, freshly juiced and zested
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Toss the carrots on the parchment with the oil, salt, pepper, and orange juice (not the zest, keep that in reserve). Then arrange in a single even layer across the baking sheet.

Ready to go
Roast the carrots in the oven for about 25 minutes, until tender-firm and just beginning to darken at the edges.

Remove the pan from the oven, sprinkle the carrots with orange zest and thyme leaves, and toss to combine. Serve hot (whole or sliced, as you prefer).

This post is also available in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

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