A most popular and versatile vegetable, carrots are thick, brightly colored roots that grow underground. With emerging feathery leaves, they belong to the Umbelliferae family of plants that produces umbrella-like flower clusters. Relatives include parsley, fennel, celery and dill.
With the exception of beets, carrots contain more sugar than any other vegetable. They have a crunchy texture and a flavor that can be described as sweet, mild, minty and aromatic.
Carrots were first cultivated in central Asian and Middle Eastern countries back in the 7th century. With a deep purple coloring, these original carrots looked different than the ones we know today. The orange carrot was not developed until the 17th century when European agriculturists began developing varieties with smoother, more pleasing textures. Brought to the North American colonies, carrots became so popular they were the first vegetable to be canned in the early 1800s.
While there are many varieties of carrots, they are often categorized into three types: Chantenay (Kuroda), Nantes and Imperator. Round and short, Chantenay are primarily grown by home gardeners. The medium-length Nantes have a uniform diameter that make them ideal for slicing. These are commonly found at local markets. Most large supermarkets in the United States, however, only carry the Imperator variety. Available in various sizes, these are commonly packaged in one-pound cellophane bags.
Carrots packaged with the label "baby carrots" are actually large carrots that have been peeled and trimmed to smaller, two-inch lengths. True baby carrots, usually sold in specialty shops or local markets, look like actual miniature carrots with the green tops still attached. They are commonly referred to as Belgian or French carrots.
Whether you purchase in bulk or plastic bags, look for carrots that are firm, smooth and well-shaped. They should be a healthy, reddish-orange color from top to bottom (carrots with a deeper orange color actually contain more beta-carotene). If the leafy green tops have been cut off, look at the stem ends to make sure they're not dark or black, which indicates age.
It is widely assumed that carrots sold with their green tops still on are fresher than those sold in bags. Expect to pay a little more, and check that the greens are brightly colored, feathery and not wilted.
Hardy vegetables, carrots will keep longer than many others if stored properly. The trick is to minimize the amount of moisture they lose. To do this, put carrots in a plastic storage bag and keep them in the coldest part of the refrigerator with the highest humidity. They should keep fresh up to two weeks.
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