As a toddler, in a time of micro-chopped Birds Eye vegetables, one rose above the others. From amid the snot-evocative yellows and greens rose sunshine-orange shards of vegetable, to become recognised as… CARROTS.
Carrots are my favourite vegetable and orange is my favourite colour. One of those facts is dependent on the other but to this day I’m not sure which. They are the torch of the vegetable world, batons of intense brightness which, unlike most vegetables, don’t diminish in colour no matter how long you cook them. Lifting them out of a slow-cooked hotpot, they look like nuclear rods being lifted from decontamination liquid. (Yes, I really do think of hotpots as decontamination liquid.)
Carrots are famed for improving night-sight (carrots are rich in Vitamin A which benefits the eyes) and so bright you could use them to light your way down a dark alleyway – and if somebody tried to mug you, the carrot doubles as a defensive bludgeoning instrument. As one of the few vegetables which is always in season, they lend vibrancy to dark wintry days and a celebratory aspect to summery ones. It might interest you to know that I come from a long line of carrot-haters on my dad’s side, which is probably the greatest evidence that I’m adopted.
Another incredible thing about carrots is their versatility. Sweet or savoury, roasted or baked or boiled or steamed, raw and plain or shredded and dressed, soups and mash and smoothies and even porridge (if Jack Monroe is to be believed). They can be a bit player, as in soffritto-based cooking (onion, celery and carrot), or the main attraction, as in carrot and coriander soup. I think it’s fair to say that carrots are simply the best vegetable, and that has absolutely nothing to do with any obsession on my part.
In celebration of this fantastic and cheap vegetable, I’m going to offer two recipes. One for lunch, one for afternoon tea. The couscous is not really a recipe (couscous never is) but as a flavour combination, mint and pomegranate are unsurpassed. This is an example of carrots as an irreplaceable back-note. The other is a recipe which my maverick-baker sister came up with when she was improving on chocolate chip cookies, scones and rich shortcrust pastry without using eggs. Normally, I don’t like vegan cakes with a fudgy texture, but here it’s just right for me. If you hate it, don’t tell me because you’ll simply destroy all my nostalgia for the cake and you wouldn’t want to do that to another person now would you?
Carroty couscous with pomegranate and mint, serves 2 packed lunches
- Cook 80g wholegrain couscous according to your packet instructions. This usually involves soaking in twice the volume of boiling water for 5-10 minutes.
- In the meantime, grate 160g-worth of carrots (although I rarely measure), drain and rinse the contents of one 400g tin chickpeas, de-seed 1 pomegranate and wash at least 65g fresh mint and no I’m not joking. Pomegranates are rarely in season at the same time as mint so the mint you get is unlikely to be very minty, so you must use lots. Lots. Especially if you like mint, in which case you could easily boost the mint to 100g.
- When the couscous is ready, stir through 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, before adding the carrots, chickpeas and half the pomegranate seeds. Shred the mint into the couscous (I finely chop the stalks with kitchen scissors and use those too) and mix all together. Taste. You might need to add more pomegranate and more mint, and sunflower seeds.
Notes: It’s rare that I condemn substitutions in any recipes, but variations on these ingredients are just not as delicious, and I think it’s a crying shame to do so. Nevertheless, you can substitute the pomegranate with dried cranberries, the fresh mint with dried mint or even the contents of peppermint teabags (except use 1-2tbsp only), and the balsamic vinegar with lemon juice. It won’t be as good, but at least you’ll be eating carrots. Do not substitute wholegrain couscous for ordinary, it’s a waste of time.
The carrot cake my sister always made, serves 12 but refrigerates easily
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC fan. Prepare two 20cm-wide sandwich-cake tins by greasing and flouring the sides, and lining the base of the tin with a circle of greaseproof paper. Or buy these fantastic cake-tin liners, which look like supersized cupcake cases. They’re awesome.
- Grate 250g carrots. Put these on some sheets of kitchen or baking paper out of the way.
- In a bowl, combine 250g wholegrain flour, 150g soft dark brown or muscovado sugar, 1 tbsp baking powder (yes, really) and 1 tbsp ground cinnamon or mixed spices.
- In a separate bowl or jug, whisk together 150ml plant milk (aim for one high in fat or protein, or partially substitute with vegan yoghurt), 80ml olive oil, 2 tbsp runny honey and the zest of 1 lime or lemon (or indeed satsuma).
- Combine the wet and dry ingredients (it doesn’t matter into which bowl they all go) with the whisk, along with the grated carrots, until it’s an amalgamated batter. Plop the mixture into the cake tins and bake for 30-40 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
- When the cakes are out, leave them to cool in their tins on a wire rack and make the icing. Beat together 300g vegan cream cheese with 3 tbsp thick but runny honey and the zest of 1 lime. Spread on top of each cooled cake then put one cake on top of the other one. If you must decorate it, you can make confit carrots or marzipan rabbits but the easiest thing is to drizzle over 100g melted cooking chocolate, dark or white, in Jackson Pollock-style swoops.
Notes: You can make these as cupcakes too. It will make 24 of them though and the sponge will be a less satisfying texture which, considering this cake is vegan, is very important. You’ll notice I don’t put dried fruit or nuts in the mixture. That’s because I don’t like that, but if you want to include fruit and nuts, I’d recommend prunes and hazelnuts (for darker, broodier flavour) or dried apricots and pecans (for something lighter and fresher).