Whether it's doing the heavy lifting in a mirepoix or getting a casual chomp in hand, green fronds dangling cartoon-style, the common carrot is anything but these days. It's one of many market vegetables that we're lucky enough to see year round, but it really hits its stride in January. Available varieties seem to triple overnight, along with the presented shapes, colors, and flavors.
Carrot lore goes back about 5,000 years, starting with a dark purple variety that was cultivated in Afghanistan, but it wasn't until the Dutch engineered the modern orange carrot in the 16th and 17th centuries that it became the more nutritious and culinarily acrobatic root we know today.
Aside from being healthful and cheap, the carrot is a flavor staple in any respected larder. It can be sautéed, steamed, pureed, pickled, juiced, jammed, braised, boiled, grilled, and gratin'd. Aside from that, carrots are terrific for practicing knife skills.
Your choice of the different varieties of carrot available this month will ultimately depend on their final destination. We like the golfball-shaped Thumbelinas quartered in hearty stews, and the drama of the Cosmic Purple, a Danvers variety with near-black outer flesh surrounding a bright orange interior: it adds a pleasingly bright sweetness and pretty color drama to salads and clear soups. A long Nantes type, sliced on the bias, makes for some piquant and earthy carrot escabeche when pickled with a few dried serranos and some of the winter cauliflower that are now available.