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An Ode to the Common Carrot

March 26, 1992|LESLIE LAND

Listen up, all you cooks and eaters: March is National Nutrition Month, and it's almost over. So let's hope you've been good: No carping about the absurdity of having any such thing; no complaints about the waste of congressional time and federal money inherent in these official declarations. Ours has been but to eat more broccoli and less cake (at least during March).

Dietary guidelines come and go; things like oat bran enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, then more or less vanish from view. But the bottom line remains the same: Go heavy on the vegetables and grains, lighten up on sugar, meat and fat. It's been the same message for the last 30 years or so, and polls show that nutritional awareness has increased substantially.

Nutritional practice , on the other hand, still leaves a lot to be desired. Salad bars offer mayonnaise-heavy macaroni, fake bacon bits and limp, ancient pickles rather than freshly cooked beets and green beans. Fast-food joints cut the burger with seaweed, marginally lowering the fat content, but the bread in the buns is still fiberless, the lettuce and tomato are both without redeeming social value.

We've got candy bars "lightened" with ersatz fats, fat-free cakes so sugar-laden their empty-calorie quotient is unchanged (if not increased).

What's missing? Vegetables.

Pressured schedules keep us looking for commercially prepared food, but pickings are mighty slim in that department. Frozen entrees still focus on meat. Frozen vegetables fail to thrill, and fresh takeout vegetable dishes made from first-class raw materials are practically nonexistent.

Enter home cooking, where those same pressured schedules have made ease and speed essential. As legions have learned, it takes more time to wash a bunch of kale than to throw a chicken breast under the broiler, more time to follow a new recipe for cabbage than to put a frozen pizza in the oven. The world's cuisines are full of wonderful ways with vegetables, and more and more fine vegetable cookbooks are available. But no honest cookbook promises instant results.

It's mouth-watering to read recipes for lemony Greek stews, Oriental stir-fries aromatic with garlic and ginger, Indian curries, spicy Thai "table salads." The problem is finding the time to follow those recipes.

The solution? Don't try, at least not on a regular basis. Instead, read a tempting recipe several times, then improvise. Apply unusual techniques and seasonings to familiar vegetables. Dare to measure casually. Tablespoons and measuring cups really slow things down, and they usually aren't necessary.

For example, consider the carrot recipes below. Though both call for specific measurements, neither is dependent on them. Feel free to mess around. The important thing, after all, is to enjoy those carrots, one of the easiest of healthful vegetables to prepare.

In winter, carrots from California usually taste better. If buying carrots with tops, look for healthy greenery and remove as soon as possible, since greens draw energy from the root. Root stubs of packaged carrots should look firm, not wrinkled, and should show no signs of yellowed foliage or regrowth.

Like a good salsa, this piquant relish lightens and brightens a wide array of foods, everything from roast pork to fried chicken to baked sweet potatoes. It's good as the crunchy element in sandwiches too, a nice break from the usual lettuce or sprouts. At its best when freshly made, it will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

CARROT RELISH

1/4 pound horseradish root

1 pound carrots

1 large tart apple, such as Granny Smith

1 teaspoon salt

Peel horseradish root, carrots and apple. Coarsely shred enough horseradish to equal 1 heaping tablespoon. (Try not to inhale pungent fumes.) Mix horseradish with salt in non-reactive bowl. Cover and set aside about 20 minutes. Reserve remaining horseradish.

Coarsely shred carrots and apple, then combine with horseradish. If more horseradish is desired, keep shredding in small amounts, tasting as you go. Relish should be peppery. Makes about 2 cups.

Like all stir-fries, this is very quickly cooked. Make sure all the elements are assembled before you start. To vary the flavor, add a bit of fresh coriander and/or minced hot pepper.

PEAS AND CARROTS REVISITED

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon corn oil

1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced on diagonal into 1/4-inch-thick oval slices

1 small onion, cut in 6 wedges, wedges separated to make leaves

1/3 pound Chinese pea pods, tipped and tailed, strings removed

1 tablespoon grated ginger root

1 large clove garlic, finely minced

1 teaspoon butter

2 teaspoons tamari (aged soy sauce)

Heat empty wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add oil. As soon as oil starts to smoke, add carrots and saute 1 minute.

Throw about 1/4 cup water into pan and cook, stirring constantly, until water has cooked away and carrots have started to brown around edges.

Reduce heat to medium and add onion, pea pods, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring, just until peas turn bright green. Add butter and season to taste with tamari. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes 4 servings.

Variation:

SLIGHTLY GREEK CARROTS AND GREEN BEANS

Follow instructions above, but use olive oil instead of corn oil, slivered green beans instead of Chinese peas. Double amount of garlic, omit ginger and soy sauce. Season with plenty of lemon juice, small amount of dried oregano and salt to taste.

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