Carrot Dishes Taking Menus To The Next Level

The carrot is going from humble side to shining showstopper

For a chef committed to local ingredients, planning a winter menu can be a challenge. Even tougher? Opening a restaurant in the middle of December, when fall produce is long gone at farmers' markets in the colder parts of the country. But if anyone is up for the challenge, it's Carmen Quagliata, the executive chef at Union Square Cafe, which reopened in December after a year closure.

Drawing on inspiration from a favorite snack of pickled carrots and Parmesan, Quagliata created an addictive carrot-pasta dish of candele, a chewy, wide-tube dried pasta, with sweet roast carrots, hot Fresno chiles, savory and salty pancetta, and refreshingly tangy Greek yogurt. "It's the most commented-on [dish]" on his new menu, he says, "and surprisingly loved."

Craving it days after trying it ourselves, we knew we had to make a carrot pasta of our own. In our version, linguine cooks in carrot juice before undergoing a royal treatment of carrot-top pesto and pickled carrot shavings (see the recipe). Apologies in advance if you don't want to cook any other pasta dish all winter long.

Between this recipe and the inventive ways chefs across the country are putting the root to work, you're about to discover a whole new appreciation for the humble carrot.

"They're super versatile. I can name 40 things you could do them," John Shields of Chicago tasting menu spot Smyth says. One of those 40 is a dessert that blends carrots with whey into a sorbet that verges on sherbet and comes with quince curd and honey that's been fermented with pine pollen. "Right now, there's no fruit. There's nothing here," Shields explains, so "using carrots is a way for us to add something besides dairy or chocolate" to the dessert menu.

Carrot sorbet comes with pine pollen, honey and ground cherries at Smyth in Chicago. | Photo: Courtesy of The Smyth

In New York at newcomer and current industry darling Sunday in Brooklyn, Kevin Denton, who consulted on the restaurant's cocktail menu, mixes a drink called In Cahoots, where fresh-pressed carrot juice meets tequila in a pepper-rimmed glass. Elsewhere in the borough, Greg Baxtrom cast the carrot in the limelight in one of last year's most noteworthy dishes. Shortly before he opened his now critically acclaimed restaurant, Olmsted, in May of last year, he found himself in a similar predicament as Quagliata. Though it was warming up outside, "spring hadn't really taken off yet" at the farmers' market, he explains. Left with few produce options, he sat down with his team and matched up vegetables they could get with proteins. On the list, two unlikely bedfellows met: carrots and clams. The end result? A delicate carrot crepe that lays over a bed of briney little clams. It quickly became synonymous with the restaurant.

Olmsted's carrot crepe was one of the most talked about dishes in NYC in 2016. | Photo: Evan Sung

Down in D.C. at Jeremiah Langhorne's The Dabney, which celebrates Mid-Atlantic cooking, the chef chars carrot in the embers of the restaurant's hearth before serving them with whipped ricotta and chopped walnuts in what has recently become the restaurant's most popular dish. "For chefs like me and people who source the way that I do, carrots are great in the winter because . . . farmers keep them in cold storage throughout the winter, and their flavor just keeps improving," which is good news heading into February. At The Drawing Board in Petaluma, carrots are smoked then rolled in nori and smoked sea salt before getting baked and sliced into carrot lox.

Charred carrots pair with whipped ricotta and walnuts at The Dabney in Washington D.C. | Photo: Courtesy of The Dabney

All of this attention is quite the step up. Though the vegetable can be traced back to prehistoric times, the glowing orange variety we're most familiar with didn't arrive until the 17th century in the Netherlands, according to The Oxford Companion to Food. Leap forward to the 20th century, and carrots become nothing but the counterpart to frozen peas or get sawed into "baby carrots" and stuffed into plastic bags only to be forgotten at the bottom of lunch boxes. Prospects at the restaurant table were even worse. You'd be lucky if you got a carrot that wasn't boiled within an inch of its life.

All that started to change around 2010, however, when Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Dan Kluger put a now-iconic carrot-and-avocado salad on the menu at ABC Kitchen. The carrots, which were blanched, marinated and finally roasted, were more dynamic than we had seen them for the last century: crispy but still comfortable to bite into, sweet but not cloying.

Though it still took several years for carrots to move from the sidelines to center stage, chefs are finally getting playful with the orange veg, and it couldn't have come at a better time. As Quagliata puts it, carrots are "a way to add splash and sunshine to our winter menu." Something we could all use this season.