Bunny food

Sweet or savory, dress up the everyday carrot for Easter dinner.

Published April 4, 2007

Carrots have more going for them than crunchy nibbles for the Easter Bunny and hunger blockers for legions of dieters.

They are among the most versatile of the vegetables that routinely make their way to the crisper. Soups, stews, salads, stir-fries, preserves, cakes and other baked goods benefit from their sturdy sweetness. Carrot juice is said to ward off disease, and their high vitamin A content has long been associated with good vision.

No wonder we think rabbits have good eyesight, although only Bugs and his cartoon pals eat the orange root with the beta-carotene in it; real rabbits like the green tops.

Carrots take kindly to all cooking techniques, especially roasting, which concentrates their sugars. And unlike other root vegetables, they are as good raw as cooked. Nearly every cuisine in the world relies on carrots for some native dish.

For all their attributes, carrots get short shrift. They are the workhorse of the veggie world, but they certainly aren't sexy; that honor goes to asparagus or perhaps to the luscious tomato and its show-off varieties.

Resolve to fix that now and get out your peeler. It's rusted and yucky? Buy a new one because, like the carrot, it's the cheapest and most useful tool in the kitchen.

Eight to 10 passes and the peel is gone. Keep peeling for ribbons, shred it, slice in circles, biased ovals, sticks or dice and you're ready to add color and nutrients to meatloaf, stir-fry or spaghetti sauce.

Easter is a good time to dress up everyday carrots, whether you're planning a formal sit-down, a potluck brunch or a picnic in the park. Serve them roasted with honey and orange alongside ham or shredded in a slaw with a minty vinaigrette for a picnic. Carrot Salad With Green Onions should be served at room temperature. And with no mayonnaise in the mix, it is an amiable accompaniment for outdoor eating.

Resist the urge to buy bags of shredded carrots for slaws and other recipes that call for slivers. They are likely to be dry and not as flavorful. Use elbow grease, or a food processor, to do the work yourself.

Bigger is not always better when it comes to carrots. Giant carrots often have a woody, tasteless center. Avoid carrots that are green at the leafy end. They may be bitter from exposure to the sun.

Don't jump at precut small "carrottes" either. Once you remember how to use a peeler and a knife, they're not as big a bargain.

Carrots match eagerly with many other flavors, from the familiar mint, honey and dill to clove, cinnamon, curry, fennel, thyme, rosemary, orange, lemon and nuts.

A worthy carrot cake

For dessert, nothing will do but carrot cake, and a version from super-chef Emeril Lagasse is pure buttery goodness.

Often, carrot cakes are laden with nuts, raisins, pineapple and coconut, masking the subtle flavor of the carrots. That excess, paired with cream cheese icing, can make for a gloppy mess.

The only adornment in Lagasse's version is toasted pecans, found in both the cake and icing. In place of the oil used in many carrot cake recipes, he calls for butter . . . three sticks. (Another stick in the icing should be enough to make anyone say, "Just a sliver, please.") Oil can sometimes leave the cake greasy. This seems especially true in muffins, a good addition to the brunch table.

The butter lightens the cake (in texture, not calories!) and makes it tender.

Lagasse's carrot cake batter can also be used for muffins, but they are better made the day before. In fact, the cake also benefits from time to set up. Don't advertise it, but day-old carrot cake is best.

Refrigerate the cake after icing but let it sit out for at least 30 minutes before serving. An hour would be better.

The recipe gives instructions for a three-layer cake, which I find too fussy and not so great for take-along. The utilitarian 9- by 13-inch pan is more my style. This recipe works just as well in the rectangular pan, though you may have some icing left over.

Think the big bunny might want to eat that? In sweet or savory dishes, carrots for Easter make perfect sense to me.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.

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Carrot Salad With Green Onions

2 pounds carrots, peeled, coarsely grated (about 7 cups)

6 green onions, chopped

3 tablespoons minced fresh mint

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup olive oil

- Mix carrots, green onions and mint in large bowl to blend.

- Whisk vinegar, lemon peel and mustard in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over carrot mixture. Toss to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours. (Can prepare 8 hours ahead. Keep refrig-erated. Let stand 1 hour at room temperature before serving.)

Serves 8.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appetit, 1997

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Carrot Cake

3 sticks, plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 cups grated carrots

1 cup chopped toasted pecans

Pecan Cream Cheese Icing:

8 ounces cream cheese

1 stick unsalted butter

1 (1-pound) box confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup chopped toasted pecans

- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

- Butter three 9-inch cake pans with 1 tablespoon of the butter and set aside. (See note for variation.) In a large bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer. Add the sugar, and beat. In a medium bowl or on a piece of parchment, combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt, and mix well.

- Add the dry ingredients, alternating with the eggs, beating well after the addition of each. Add the vanilla extract and mix. Add the carrots and beat on medium speed until well incorporated, about 2 minutes. Fold in the nuts. Divide between the three cake pans and bake until set and a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest in the cake pans for 10 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, remove from the pans, and let cool.

- For the frosting: In a large bowl, cream together the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar gradually, beating constantly. Add the vanilla and pecans.

- When the cake is cool, place 1 cake layer on a cake plate or stand. Spread the top with cream cheese frosting and top with a second and third cake layer, spreading the icing between each layer. Spread the icing around the sides of the cake and let harden slightly before serving. To serve, cut into wedges.

Note: The St. Petersburg Times tested this recipe using a 9- by 13-inch pan, baking it at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. You'll have a little more icing than you need if you bake it this way.

Source: Emeril Lagasse, Food Network

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Orange-Roasted Carrots With Honey

1 1/2 pounds slender carrots, peeled and trimmed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for drizzling

1 teaspoon (packed) finely grated orange peel

Salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

1 1/2 tablespoons honey

Fleur de sel or coarse salt

- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange carrots in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and orange peel; sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss. Pour orange juice over; cover tightly with foil. Remove foil. Increase oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle honey over carrots. Roast uncovered until carrots are tender and browned in spots, about 10 minutes longer.

- Transfer carrots and any juices to platter. Drizzle lightly with additionally olive oil. Sprinkle with salt.

Serves 4.

Note: This recipe originally called for baby carrots, not the small ones that come peeled and shaped in bags but an actual young carrot. They can be difficult to find here, so substitute slender carrots.

Source: Bon Appetit, April 2007