Q. I love the flavor of carrots, but am very tired of the same old candied roots, which are cloyingly sweet. Do you have any suggestions on other ways to boil, steam or stew them? Why is sugar added, anyway?
Older roots and those that have been stored for some time tend to be a little less sweet and may even be tinged with bitterness. To these, the addition of a little sugar -- perhaps 1 tablespoon per pound -- is acceptable, although this no subsititute for good cooking technique.
There are two better ways of sweetening carrots: cooking onions with them (onions are quite high in sugar) or evaporating all the water. This latter method concentrates the sugars already present. The predominant sugar of carrots, by the way, is sucrose -- table sugar.
Steaming carrots is appropriate for the very youngest roots -- the baby carrots grown in Florida or the unfortunate roots yanked prematurely from the garden. These are tender and never tinged with bitterness. They need no auxiliary flavors and cook quickly steamed in very little water for just 10 or 15 minutes.
Otherwise, boiling is the best cooking method. Here is a generic recipe with no frills (that is, no butter, no sugar and no spices or other vegetable) as well as some variations on it. The name, by the way, has nothing to do with the French government or with any treaties. I was told by someone who should know that its namesake is the bland water Vichy, produced in the town of that name. Proper Carottes Vichy are made with that water, although they won't be any better than carrots made with the waters of other cities and towns. Water is an extremely dilute solution; any minor flavor variations are overwhelmed by the essence of carrot. CAROTTES VICHY (6 servings)
1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch-thick circles
1/2 teaspoon salt
Water to just cover
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Place carrots in saucepan, add salt and enough water to just cover the top layer. Bring carrots to a boil and immediately reduce to medium. Boil (not simmer) until almost all the water is gone. Stir the top layer down after 10 minutes so it will be as cooked as the bottom layer. Reduce heat to low and continue cooking until all the water is gone. At this point, you hear a slight sizzling. Remove and serve, topped with the chopped parsley. It takes about 30 minutes to evaporate the water; the carrots will be cooked by then.
Some variations are:
Curried Carrots: Dice a medium-sized onion and saute' gently in 2 tablespoons of butter. When limp and translucent, add a tablespoon of curry powder. Cook another 2 minutes, then add the carrots and proceed as for Carottes Vichy. The parsley is optional.
Carrots With Coriander: Proceed as for curried carrots, but replace the tablespoon of curry powder with 1/2 teaspoon coriander.
Carrots with Cumin: Proceed as for curried carrots, but replace the curry powder with 1 teaspoon of cumin and 1 teaspoon of chili powder. A little ham bone or some diced ham would add flavor.
Carrots with Sesame: Proceed as for curried carrots, but saute' half a green pepper, diced, with the onions. Just before serving, add 2 drops of sesame oil and 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds (heated in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil until light brown).
Carrots with Walnuts and Leeks: Proceed as for curried carrots, but saute' the white of 1 leek (cut in thin circles and rinsed briefly in a colander under running water) in a tablespoon of walnut oil. When cooked, mix with 1/2 cup toasted walnut halves or pieces.
Ginger Carrots: Proceed as for curried carrots, but replace butter with peanut oil and leave out the salt. When carrots are cooked, season with a tablespoon of minced, fresh ginger, a teaspoon (or to taste) of soy sauce or tamari sauce and a few shakes of red pepper flakes. Mix with 1/2 cup of sliced water chestnuts.