Carrots are an easy crop for farmers with the land for them. They don't have the stigma of Brussels sprouts or the on-again-off-again iron taste that beets sometimes have to fight. And they've been lucky enough to dance in the culinary trio of mirepoix for hundreds of years, an unintended marketing coup that makes the carrot part of the cornerstone of many important base sauces and stocks. It's part of what makes them an easy sell. That and Bugs Bunny. (Coup No. 2: How many kids ate carrots with fronds attached just to mimic the charismatic leporidae?) It might be why we have so many varieties that go back centuries, some of their once-lost colors and shapes re-emerging as interest in vegetable diversity grows.
The Planet (or Round or Globe) carrots are a fast-growing, stubby variety first made popular in Parisian markets in the late 1800s. Their size made them ideal for easy storage in cramped kitchens and they have a pleasant, candyish sweetness. Our puzzlingly warm winter hasn't done carrot flavor any favors, no matter what variety you're looking to buy, but these have managed to stay sweet, perhaps because of their shorter stay in the ground. More on this after the jump.
Carrots in California are grown year-round from the top of the state to a hill in San Diego overlooking Tijuana. But they're a cool-weather crop. They'll grow anytime, but it's a 10-degree temperature zone of 60 to 70 degrees that allows the carrot to stay sweet and develop vibrant color. Normally that's not an issue for us in winter, but the 2011-12 winter is shaping up to be a weird one. We've had too many days over 70 degrees — even in the usually cooler desert areas where a lot of our local carrot crops spent the winter — and not nearly enough rain. So if you've noticed a slight bitterness and lack of color in your winter carrots, that's why.
The Planet carrot might be doing better flavorwise because it spends less time in the ground. In some cases, a full two weeks less — which may not sound like a lot, but if it means skipping a stretch of warm weather, it can fundamentally alter flavor. These are sweet and tender, with an almost nonexistent core and thus very little fiber. A good fresh eater, but we're looking forward to cooking them whole until fork-soft. Underwood Family Farms started putting these out a couple of weeks ago and expects to have them through mid-April. You can find them at the Culver City, Calabasas, Encino, Pasadena, Pacific Palisades, Hollywood, Brentwood and Hancock Park farmers markets.
Felicia Friesema is a Master Food Preserver with the UC Cooperative Extension and Co-