01/23/2013 11:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

California Carrots: Chefs Take Advantage Of State's 'Carrot Capital' Status

Bugs Bunny would be pleased.

Carrots -- the old standby of the vegetable drawer -- are enjoying newfound admiration. Chefs love their flavor and (not always orange) color. They crave their crunch and adaptability.

As a bonus, carrots combine a massive dose of antioxidants along with good taste, making them a healthy side dish of choice. And unlike many vegetables, fresh carrots are in season throughout the winter -- and the rest of the year, too.

California is the carrot capital, producing about 80 percent of the nation's crop. More than 70,000 acres -- primarily in Kern County -- are devoted to carrots.

"We're able to grow carrots year-round, but the larger production time is for winter harvest," said Nathan Sano, manager of the California Fresh Carrot Advisory Board.

In 2012, California grew 1.9 billion pounds of carrots, according to the board. Of that total, about 70 percent was turned into baby-cut carrots.

"Baby-cut" aren't really baby carrots; they're fully mature, small-diameter carrots. Farmers plant these carrots closer together so the roots stay slim.

Baby-cuts created a California carrot boom in the late 1990s with a 30 percent increase in acreage devoted to this crop. Since that spike, carrot production and consumption have stayed constant.

"We've been pretty consistent over the last few years," Sano said. "The majority (of the crop) goes into baby-cut peeled and prepackaged carrots."

The appeal of baby-cut carrots is simple: They're fast and easy.

"People love them because they're more convenient," Sano said. "You don't have to scrub and peel. Just open the bag and serve."

Interest in heirloom vegetables has brought many cooks and gardeners to more colorful carrots: purple, red, yellow and white as well as orange.

West Sacramento's Del Rio Botanical, which supplies vegetables to several Sacramento-area restaurants, raises colorful carrots.

"We grow some beautiful purple carrots," said Del Rio's Suzanne Ashworth. "Chefs love them. We have lots of baby carrots in different colors. That's one of their favorites."

These rainbow roots surprise some of Del Rio's customers who get the "Atomic Purple" or pale "Lunar White" carrots in their weekly Community Supported Agriculture boxes.

"Most home gardeners -- and consumers -- aren't familiar with carrots in colors," Ashworth said. "We have some that are purple throughout. They're pretty cool, too."

In most varieties, the carrot's skin may be different, but the core remains bright orange. With others, the inside matches the outside.

If not meal stars, carrots have found key supporting roles in many top kitchens.

Last week, celebrity chef Tyler Florence tweeted photos of seared ahi atop pureed carrots with baby carrot confit from his Mill Valley kitchen.

In Sacramento, chef Patrick Mulvaney put baby carrots atop arugula and frisee salad, mixed them with house-made pappardelle and served more alongside rib-eye steak at Mulvaney's B&L. At Taste in Plymouth, baby carrots accompanied slow-cooked short ribs or were braised in red wine.

It's no wonder chefs love carrots. Capable of both savory and sweet, carrots can be part of any course from soup to dessert.

Because of convenience, consumers tend to buy their carrots without their tops. Since 1959, supermarket carrots are primarily bagged in plastic, an innovation developed by Bolthouse Farms. Based in Bakersfield, Bolthouse also introduced the baby-cut carrot -- originally called Shortcuts -- in 1990.

Now, consumers gravitate to peeled, precut little orange finger foods instead of messing with old-school roots. But whole carrots have their fans, too.

"Markets make them difficult to appreciate," said Ashworth, no fan of packaged baby-cut carrots.

Instead, real baby carrots -- harvested young with their green tops still attached -- are a treat, she said.

"Baby carrots are beautiful," Ashworth added. "I like them with a little top on."

That also verifies that the carrot was a true baby, and not just cut to size.

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter: @debarrington. ___



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