Green Plum Cooking School – February 27th
A few blog posts ago, I had to take one of our regulars, Alison, to task because of her husband’s addiction to carrot nubs. If you know anything about me, you know I would tell you to Just Say NO! to carrot nubs. So, why did I buy a bag of carrot nubs at the big grocery box store for this week’s Green Plum cooking class? I was going to taunt Alison. Turns out that she won’t buy them for her husband, Oleg, anymore, but does admit that Oleg will get them for himself, like crack on the corner. He eats them every day. He thinks they are going to keep him from going blind. I think he can’t see straight.
Today, I am going to make the carrots that are a side on tafia’s menu: carrots with a spicy pepperoncini-sundried tomato-celery topping. I am going to make a Warm Date Butter Tart to get the audience on my side first, though. Carrots are a hard sell unless they’re nubs, it seems.
The first thing we do is prebake our pate sucrée, a sweet pastry dough, that I had made prior to class. Then we make the filling: I start by browning butter with a vanilla bean added in (seeds scraped out with the back of a paring knife first). After the butter browns, whisk it into your measured flour, eggs and sugar and a pinch of salt. Byron (once he is off his cell phone; other people were on their cell phones, too — come on, people!) cuts medjool dates in half and removes their pits. We place those in concentric circles on our prebaked tart shell; we do as many concentric circles as can fit so each person will get a date in their tart slice. I pour the brown butter-vanilla mixture over the dates, not filling too deeply so it will cook in the hour that I have. When the tart comes back up from baking downstairs, there will be awe and shock. There’s just something about butter, sugar, eggs, and flour that makes right a world that puts up with carrot nubs.
I then go ahead and demonstrate making the pate sucrée dough to show how easy it is. It has a lot of eggs, sugar and cream in it. I let the audience taste the raw dough. It’s like a really good sugar cookie dough and can be baked as such. I pat it and set it aside to auction it off after class to a lucky raffle winner.
On to the carrot dish. I keep starting my carrot dissertation, but never get through it. So I resort to shock and awe. I pull a bag of “baby” carrot nubs out of a drawer in my sycamore table. Everyone gasps. There is shock and horror, to say the least. I threaten to make the dish with them, but instead I have Lisa help me peel our larger carrots.
I slice them on the bias, about 1/4″ thick. I wouldn’t peel a local, baby carrot. Have you ever seen the Thumbelina variety – a really cute little “nub” of a real carrot with a point? I’d pick this over the grocery store “nub.” I am going to pan-roast the carrots. I get my All-Clad pan very hot with a layer of olive oil, place a layer of sliced carrots in the pan and leave them be. I find when I cook with people at their homes, there’s always someone who won’t stop touching the sauté pans. Let the fire and the pan do what it is supposed to do. Sauté in French means “to jump.” We want the carrots a little caramelized and slightly soft. I salt and pepper them a little. After a couple of minutes, shake the pan and toss the carrots and see if you have any color. If so, then toss to replace the caramelized carrots on the bottom with the ones from on top and caramelize those a little, too. I’ve sautéed my ten carrots in two batches using two pans, being careful not to overcrowd them so I get some good, hot roasting — NOT steaming! I then combine all the carrots and give them a little cuddly time to cook some more — but not burn! In my new free pan, I start my pepperoncini mixture. We’ve sliced celery and garlic, julienned sundried tomatoes (the dry type, not olive oil-marinated) and seeded and sliced our pepperoncinis. These vary in size and heat, so find a brand you like and stick with it.
I share with the crowd that I remember a chef who did a special event with me; he made an interesting endive salad using pepperoncini brine in his dressing as the acid. It’s one of those food experiences that jolts you out of your fixed food ideas. I think of pepperoncinis on every bad salad bar in the country or on the ubiquitous house salad with iceberg lettuce so it can be a little jolting (in a good way) to present this pedestrian ingredient in a setting like t’afia. I believe carrots need something to offset their carrotness which to me is a little too carrot-y, in a carrot sort of way (note that in the baby carrot nub marketing, Ranch Dressing is suggested). In this class, we’ve done carrots with Dukkah, an African spice-nut-seed mix; we’ve done them with Szechuan peppercorn salt, too; miso-mustard sauce doesn’t hurt, either (it helps).
So, now I’ve pretty much admitted that I don’t really like carrots. I always say that I’m not the pull-the-carrot-out-of-the-dirt, rinse-it- off-with-the-hose-water, and-munch” kind of person that Lisa is. Carrots need something. Olive oil and sea salt, if nothing else. Don’t peel them either. That’s where the nutrition is and they’re beautiful that way. At market, you’ll find yellow, white, purple, red and orange varieties. Lili (and most kids, really) don’t believe they’re real. That’s because real carrots have been marketed right out of existence and replaced by the newly-invented baby carrot marketing story. I have a shirt that reads, “Silence of the Yams.” I lifted this saying from Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food,” where he discusses the inequity of marketing dollars that go towards selling processed foods versus the lowly yam. Hence, the yam’s silence.
Lisa sent me a link to an article titled, “The Invention of the Baby Carrot.” I read it because I wanted to give the carrot nub a fair chance. The story of baby carrots starts with Mike Yarosek, a large packing farmer who got sick and tired of 70% of his cosmetically-challenged carrots going to juice or to feed animals. Basically, he wanted to make some money off of his ugly carrots. These are real carrots that vary in size and shape and, to our sophisticated American consumer, are unmarketable or unsellable because they are not uniform, perfect, unblemished. It’s hard to fault his pioneering spirit, his inventor’s mind. Instead of watching his not-quite-ready-for-Hollywood carrots go for another use, he works on the RE-invention of the baby carrot. Seriously, there’s a website www.CarrotMuseum.com that defines the baby carrot as Yarosek’s invention; the other ones that nature grew before Yarosek are referred to as natural carrots. So, Yarosek finds a green bean cutting machine and experiments with turning his less-than-perfect carrots into carrot nubs, getting three or four or five out of each root. Today, he grows carrots to a particular size and shape to get maximum carrot nub yield out of each one. Hum, I wonder why he couldn’t grow them to be more attractive in the first place.
In class, we did raise the question of how much of the carrot was wasted in turning it into nubs and now we know. Maximum yield of nubs brings more profit than a whole carrot. All carrot nubs come out of Bakersfield, CA. from two producers. Consumption of baby carrots has doubled since Yarosek’s invention and he’s a happily retired grandfather that loves bass fishing.
So, I’m almost sold on the baby carrot until the last page of the article, despite the fact that I do love a good rags-to-riches story. But here’s the rub: anything peeled and chopped and put in a cellophane bag is going to have to be chemical-ized somehow. Food “safety,” you know. The website discloses two “scares” in relation to their nubs: the chlorine bleach scare and something called the white blush scare (which is just the pre-cut carrots drying out). Then there’s the little, overlooked detail that these baby carrots have a lot less nutritional value than “natural” carrots.
Carrots (and most vegetables) actually benefit nutritionally from being juiced or cooked – the body is better able to absorb their goodness. And most of the nutrition is in the peel. Hum, just the way nature invented them. And they sure are good with the pepperoncini mixture.
In this country, we are told how we’re supposed to eat and yet we grow food for maximum yield and convenience and not nutrition. Ay, there’s the nub.
NOTE: The recipes used in my Green Plum Cooking School classes can be found in my online cookbook, “Eat Where Your Food Lives,” available for purchase at http://www.ChefMonicaPope.com)