What are baby carrots?
Those little rounded-off orange logs that come prepackaged in a 16-ounce plastic bag are no more babies than you are. They start their lives as mature carrots and are fed into a machine that shaves and segments them down into regular nubbins.
I confess: I don't like what are officially (and more accurately) called baby-cut carrots. They rarely evince that dense, clean, snappy carrot texture, and for good reason: An unprocessed carrot's peel does a fine job of regulating the moisture content of the carrot, maintaining its natural juices while providing a barrier to the refrigerator's moist air. Because they are peel-less, baby carrots don't hold up nearly so well and are more prone to rot in the bag. (In fact, they are usually rinsed in a bleach solution -- said to be perfectly safe -- to forestall that eventuality.)
But OK, they're a good snack for kids. When I see them on a crudite platter, I think "lazy cook," and when I encounter them in a cooked dish, especially at a restaurant, I look for the door. Really, how much trouble is it to peel a carrot?
When shopping for full-size carrots, look for hard, brightly colored ones that are firm (and slimeless) at their bases. I find that big carrots often have better flavor than skinny ones and, especially if I'm cooking them, I look for specimens that taper as little as possible, the better to cut them into equal-size pieces. Obviously, it's easier to assess them if they are not packaged in plastic; but, if they are, bear in mind that many packages have orange stripes that make the carrots within look better. Packages also often aren't transparent at the top and bottom, which means you can't see what shape the stems and tips are in.
One of my favorite ways to cook carrots is to glaze them. Whenever I do this for company, I am amazed at the reaction: Folks really like glazed carrots.
6 medium or 3 large carrots (1 1/2 pounds total without green tops)
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Peel carrots and cut into 1-by-1/2-inch sections, trying to keep pieces as even in size as possible.
2. Arrange carrots in saute pan just large enough to hold them in 1 layer. Add butter and sprinkle with sugar and pinch of salt. Pour enough water in pan to come halfway up carrots. Cover loosely with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
3. Bring carrots to simmer over high heat, then lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Start poking carrots with a knife after 12 minutes. When they are done, the knife should penetrate easily but with slight resistance. If carrots are done and water is left in the pan, remove foil and turn heat to high to quickly evaporate liquid. If water has evaporated but carrots are not yet done, add 2 tablespoons of water, turn down heat and cook, covered, until done.
4. When carrots are done, all water has evaporated and there is a light-brown glaze on bottom of pan, add a tablespoon of water and turn heat to high. Swirl carrots until coated with a shiny glaze. Grind fresh pepper over them and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Recipe is adapted from James Peterson's "Vegetables" (Ten Speed Press, $35).