This Portuguese dish features boiled carrots tossed with olive oil, cumin and flat-leaf parsley. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor

We were sitting at lunch with our farm crew, talking about carrots, a favorite crop.

In spring and early summer, carrots are tender and sweet. Later on the flavor deepens, as the roots exert a complex alchemy on the nutrients they pull from the soil. After a few fall frosts, carrots reach their pinnacle of quality and turn even sweeter than they do in spring. In late winter, after months of cold storage, when they’re a bit woody and begin to sprout greens on top, we find that they still can be put to creative use.

A young French visitor spoke up with a perplexing contribution: “In Portugal, they make a sweet jam out of the carrots’ fruits.” The fruits? We pictured a Queen Anne’s lace flower, the frilly white umbrella borne by a wild carrot plant. It’s no different from the one that a cultivated carrot would send up if you let it overwinter and bloom in its second year. Could the little seeds that follow those white florets be used in cooking, we wondered, as with the seeds of the similar coriander and dill?

A bit of research turned up some unexpected answers. Yes, the seeds can be used as a spice, a medicinal tonic and even a fragrance. One entry on the Good Scents Co. website describes the odor as an “earth-woody-rooty bouquet with a fresh, mild, sweet top note and a heavy, leathery-spicy undertone.” Whew!

The author’s carrot “chutney,” with California mandarins, raisins, honey and hazelnuts. (Barbara Damrosch)

Most likely, though, the Portuguese jam our friend remembered was the victim of a confusing European Union trade designation. Along with rhubarb stems, sweet potatoes and pumpkins, carrots are classified as fruits. (They aren’t, of course; fruits contain seeds.) They must be called fruits for the purpose of selling them as the jarred confection defined as jam. Botany bows to commerce.

Carrot jam did sound like a good idea, though, so I looked that up, too. Most recipes call for equal parts cooked carrot puree and sugar — a little too sweet, I thought. Adding a little commercial pectin will make it more jammy than syrupy, although it might make a tasty syrup, too. Cooks often add a natural pectin source such as chopped apple, lemon zest or the thinly sliced rind of oranges, along with their juice. At that point, I guess it’s carrot-orange marmalade.

I tried making that, but it soon morphed into something more like a chutney, composed of slow-roasted carrots; thinly sliced California mandarins simmered with cloves, raisins and honey; and finally hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped. It needed a bit more carrot and less citrus, but it was still delicious, served along with a stir-fry of pork, onions and water chestnuts.

The adventure did not end there, because in searching the Web for “Portugal and carrots,” I stumbled on a simpler and thoroughly satisfying carrot vehicle that bespeaks the Moorish influence in that country. It’s a highly seasoned bowl of cooked carrots that might be combined with other small items — as you would with meze, tapas, hors d’oeuvres or whatever you want to call a table spread with lots of irresistible little dishes.

The carrots are usually cut into rounds and boiled until tender but with a bit of firmness. You drain them, let them dry, toss them with olive oil and seasonings, then chill them.

I simmered mine with a few bay leaves until all the liquid evaporated, then let them dry and come to room temperature. For the dressing, I whisked olive oil with a little white wine vinegar, a large pinch of cumin, coarse sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and garlic grated with a fine-textured Microplane. I poured on enough to make it glisten and stirred it gently.

Chilling seemed unnecessary, unless I expected to eat it the next day, and even then I’d take it out and bring it to room temperature, just as I would a potato salad or a plate of cheese, to wake up the aromas and flavors.

The last step was to sprinkle the carrots with rosemary and lots of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley.

What would I call it? A salad? Maybe just a bowl of carrots with no official designation, no limits and no borders.

Tip of the Week

A thick organic mulch — chopped straw is excellent — will help protect newly planted tomatoes against foliar disease while keeping weeds at bay and preserving soil moisture. Remove some of the lowest leaves to make room for the mulch.

— Adrian Higgins