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Opinion | The sweetness of the winter carrot

Nandita Iyer
Red carrots are one of the very few vegetables that strictly maintain their seasonal timetable, thereby making them more sought after

A bagful of fresh seasonal produce is one of the most joyful things for me. It provides me inspiration for my cooking and food writing. Last week, I posted a photo of my weekly vegetable haul on Instagram. I asked my audience what their favourite winter vegetable was and their favourite way to eat that vegetable.

The results were naturally skewed towards red carrots and carrot halwa.

These days, most vegetables and fruits, even fresh peas, seem to be available throughout the year. Red carrots are one of the very few vegetables that strictly maintain their seasonal timetable, thereby making them more sought after. Gajar ka halwa, while said to have Mughal origins, seems to have an almost pan-India appeal, making it the most popular Indian winter dessert.

Last weekend, after a lunch catch-up with friends, we stopped by the Indira Nagar Natural's ice cream outlet to parcel a few tubs for home. When I asked the guy at the counter about the seasonal specials, he gave us a taste of the gajar halwa ice cream. It was so delectable that I would add it to a list of must-taste things this winter. It had the flavour of real home-made carrot halwa mixed into vanilla ice cream, which is a classic way to eat this sweet dish. The only reason why I would prefer to eat it the traditional way and not in an ice cream form is the exciting temperature contrast between the hot halwa and the ice cream.

The inherent sweetness of red carrots makes us believe that they are only good for sweet dishes. I would beg to disagree and the two recipes below are proof of that. To use red carrots in savoury dishes, balance out the sweetness by using stronger flavours with heat, such as ginger, garlic, chillies, onions and black pepper. Adding acidity by way of lemon juice, tamarind or vinegars also helps balance the strong note of sweetness. A good example of this is carrot sambar, where the carrot soaks up the flavours of the spices in the sambar podi as well as the tanginess of the tamarind.

The one recipe that I want to try this season is the chef Yotam Ottolenghi-style honey roasted carrots served with a tahini yogurt sauce. To prepare whole roasted carrots, choose carrots of a similar size, preferably thinner ones without a yellow core. The red carrots when sliced, grated or spiralized, lend a beautiful colour to salads.

I love to combine spiralized carrots, radishes, beets and zucchini for a beautiful rainbow salad. But given that it is winter, we seek comfort in spicier dishes, hot soups, stews and curries.

Adding antioxidant-rich red carrots to besan chilla boosts your breakfast with vitamin A and biotin. The basic carrot and potato soup is hearty enough to make it a meal by itself. Red carrots coarsely grated and cooked down in a tomato-based pasta sauce is a smart way to include this seasonal vegetable in your children's pasta meal. The sweetness in the carrots balances out the sharp acidity in the local tomatoes. My favourite way to eat red carrots is to chop them into batons, toss them in a special pickle masala (Spyran brand from Vadodara, available online) and let it sit for 15 minutes. This instant carrot pickle adds a punch of deliciousness to a simple dal-rice meal.

CARROT CHILLA

Makes two 6-inch ‘chillas'

Ingredients

1 large red carrot

3/4 cup besan (gram flour)

1 tsp finely grated ginger

2 green chillies, finely chopped

Handful coriander leaves, finely chopped

1/4 tsp baking soda

2 tbsp yogurt

1/2 tsp salt

1 tbsp oil, to cook chillas

Method

Scrub the carrot and grate coarsely. Or use a julienne peeler to peel into long strands. In a bowl, whisk together besan, ginger, chillies, coriander leaves, soda, yogurt and salt along with K cup water or more to get a thick batter.

Heat a non-stick pan and grease it with K tsp oil, coating the pan with a piece of kitchen tissue or halved onion.

Place the carrot stands (or grated carrot) in a circular pattern on the pan. Pour the batter to cover the carrot strands. Smooth out the top but do not spread it out thin. Spoon some oil along the edges and cook over a medium flame for 7-8 minutes.

Carefully flip over and cook the other side for 5 more minutes. Cut into quarters and serve hot.

Carrot Potato Soup

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 medium red carrots, about 200g

1 medium potato, about 100g

2 tsp olive oil

1 bay leaf

3 cloves garlic, sliced

K small onion, sliced

1 stock cube

2 cups water

Method

Peel and slice the carrots and potato.

In a small (2-3 litre capacity) pressure cooker, heat oil. Fry the bay leaf and garlic for 30 seconds.

Sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes. Add the sliced carrot and potato and saute over a high flame for 2-3 minutes.

Crumble the stock cube into the cooker. Add water and bring to a boil. Fit the lid of the cooker with the weight attached. After reaching full pressure (first whistle) reduce the flame to minimum and cook for 7-8 minutes.

Once cooled, open the cooker and discard the bay leaf. Puree the mixture and return to the cooker. Warm through. Top with freshly ground black pepper, fresh herbs and a swirl of fresh cream or extra virgin olive oil.

I prefer to make this in a pressure cooker. It can also be made in a pot with a lid but it takes a good 20 minutes for the carrots to be cooked well. Vegetable stock can be used instead of using stock cube and water.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

She tweets at @saffrontrail