Carrots have been one of my favourite vegetables since way back when. As a child, I was never keen on meat, especially beef. I hated all that chewing and would end up with dry indigestible lumps hidden in my cheeks like a hamster. Muttering that I had finished, I would leave the table and head for the toilet to spit out the offending lumps. So my mother wisely compromised by serving me potatoes and carrots covered with the meaty gravy which I would then mash together. For a four year old, it was my idea of the perfect meal.
In those days, carrots were the inevitable pairing with potatoes – mashed, roasted or boiled – for the traditional ‘meat and two veg’. My grandmother sliced her carrots in roundels and boiled them, as did my mother. Generation after generation of us eating sliced carrots…
It took a trip to the Normandy coast where, aged fourteen, I discovered that fabulous French salad of carrots rapé – grated carrots dressed in a vinaigrette and allowed to marinade for a few hours so their sweet, orange juice becomes part of the dressing – to realise there was more to carrots than simply boiling them.
The first time I came across carrots cut ‘julienne’ style and tied into a little bundle with a twist of a leek frond was in the 1980s when the presentation of food was the prevailing trend – all those large white plates with dribbles of balsamic vinegar and artfully arranged ingredients which required deconstructing before you could get anything in your mouth!
But hey, it was the fashion, so I began to cut my carrots in thin strips à la julienne but held back from tying them into small bundles. And then it became ‘the thing’ to roast your carrots along with other root vegetables; or glaze them in a caramelising mixture of demerara sugar or honey with butter – cut lengthwise of course. These days, a side of simple round-cut boiled carrots seems almost retro!
Such was my love of carrots that I tried to grow them in my vegetable garden on the Welsh Borders, but the soil was too clay-ridden and the results were very disappointing – stunted, two or three-legged versions and often munched by weevils. I even added several sacks of sand to my carrot patch but the wet, Welsh weather soon washed the sand away.
It wasn’t until I had a potager in the north of the Tarn that I was able to successfully grow proper long straight carrots. I once had a moment of pure joy when I told my small step-grand-daughter, Sylvie, to pull up the feathery green plant that I showed her. She looked a little doubtful, but I insisted and when she saw a carrot emerge from the soil, her face was a picture of wonder and amazement. For her, carrots arrived in bags from supermarket shelves.
So, given my love of the orange root, it’s not surprising that one of my favourite stand-by dishes for when there’s not much left in the fridge or pantry is a kind of pilaf made with carrots and cardamoms. With only a few carrots, you can magic up a meal for vegetarians – or a an excellent accompaniment to go with lamb or spicy chicken dishes.
Carrot and Cardamom Pilaf. Preparation and cooking time 35 minutes, serves four as a side dish, two as a main course.
5 medium sized carrots, peeled and grated lengthwise to get long strands
2 red onions, chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
10 cardamom pods, split open to extract the small black seeds (see method below)
A good handful of flaked almonds
A handful of golden sultanas
Basmati rice measured to 500 ml in a jug, well rinsed
1 litre of boiling water to which I add a vegetable stock cube
Some chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan, then add the finely chopped onion and the crushed garlic and allow to gently cook until they become soft and transparent. While the onion and garlic cook, crush the cardamom seeds in a pestle and mortar, then add to the frying pan and stir. The gentle heat really brings out the pungent rich scent of the cardamom – a spice I love, but if you’re not an enthusiast, you might like to start with the seeds from 5-6 cardamom pods, rather than 10.
Now add the grated carrots. Five grated carrots makes a small mountain but they will rapidly reduce in size once cooked. You might need to add a drop more olive oil to moisten, then stir and put a lid on for a couple of minutes in order for the carrots to reduce in volume. Then add the basmati rice and stir gently, ensuring that all the rice is coated in the oil. Now add the stock to the pan, stir once more and leave to simmer with the lid on, for 10-12 minutes.
At this point, add the chopped parsley, the flaked almonds, the sultanas, and the salt and freshly ground pepper. It’s a dish which needs salting so I added a good teaspoon of salt flakes. Stir everything together but use a fork this time to gently mix it all in otherwise you risk crushing the rice.
Put the lid back on and leave to simmer for a final few minutes – 4-5 max. Test the rice to make sure and then leave to cool down slightly with some kitchen towel layered under the lid to absorb the steam.
I like this dish simply on its own, but I also re-used it in a salad version, adding some chopped beetroot, chunks of feta, and my dressing (see my recipe for salad dressing in the post about foraging for respounchous).