I woke up in the morning thinking about carrots - Thumbelina carrots to be exact. It may be because I've been drinking a questionable amount of carrot juice as of recent, or maybe I was just having premonitions about the day ahead. Or maybe I'm turning into Bugs Bunny? I love the fact that we can go to the market now and get heirloom varieties of carrots, as opposed to having to purchase those flavorless (relatively speaking) stock size horse fodder, or worse, "baby carrots". I hate the thought of food going to waste, so seeing those tiny little buggers and imagining the giant carrot they once came from makes me kind of sad. Heck, I even went to far as to use my carrot tops to make tea! (Steeped with a little mint...not bad, and super healthy!)
So began my carrot hunt! Which also happened to turn into my "cool-looking vegetables" hunt. Purple cauliflower, romanesco cauliflower, why not!
But my heart was still with the Thumbelinas. I visited a trifecta of markets, picking up some young yellow, deep purple, and white carrots. After a couple hours of traipsing around, I just assumed that I would be without the one item I truly wanted - which was okay, considering I already had about four thousand pounds of carrots. But alas, I saw them, at the last farmer's tent, hidden amongst other vegetables that were NOT carrots! Did I need more carrots? Probably not. But did I get the Thumbelinas? Absolutely!
That being said, I was ready to showcase each one of these carrots. They really do come in an astonishing array of colors: our standard orange, purple, maroon, white, red, black, purple with an orange or white center - you name it, it's probably out there somewhere, except maybe blue. I find that orange really helps to bring out the flavor of carrots without overpowering it, if you do it right. And anise is a killer combination as well! So on we go with a nice little veggie dish that is both flavorful and great to look at!
Tender Carrot Confit with Orange and Star Anise
3 lbs carrots, peeled, tops removed (if you have a variety, make sure at least half are orange to preserve the color of the puree)
1 1/2 cups fresh orange juice
3 whole star anise
Fresh ground black pepper
2 cups olive oil
1 thyme sprig
1 rosemary sprig
1 t ground star anise
A pinch sea salt
Coarsely chop half of the carrots, and combine with the orange juice and star anise in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Let this mixture simmer over medium-low heat until the carrots are beyond fork tender, and the OJ has reduced to about 1/3 cup - about 30 minutes. Be sure to stir every once in a while. When ready, discard the star anise and puree until smooth in a blender or food processor. If you want to make the puree even smoother, pass it through a sieve or fine-mesh strainer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside. Keep this warm for later plating.
Depending on the size of your carrots, you can either leave them whole, half them, or really go to town on them. You want to have pieces that are about 4 inches or so long, maybe smaller, but definitely no larger! For me, I like to preserve the shape of most vegetables, so the small carrots I used were cooked whole - some I only had to halve. Heat the oil, thyme and rosemary in a heavy bottomed saucepan over low heat until aromatic, about 10 minutes. Add the carrot pieces and cook until very tender, about anywhere from 20-40 minutes depending on the variety of carrot you use. Be sure to check every once in a while to ensure they don't get overcooked. Sidebar: if you are using multi-colored carrots, be sure to cook the darker once last (purple, maroon, black) - they tend to bleed their color, discoloring the other vegetables. Then again, that's just me being anal - you can totally put them all together and get a Jackson Pollock-esque carrot montage!
When the carrots are cooked, transfer to a cutting board and cut each in half for presentation. Spoon the warm carrot puree into the well of a bowl, or right onto a plate. Arrange the carrot pieces on top, finishing with ground star anise, sea salt, and fresh ground pepper.
Simple, easy, mouthwatering! The carrot puree was perfectly sweet, with just a hint of anise to it - all of the flavors played together well, without one overpowering the other. And the color was just super intense! As for the carrots - you start to get excited when you smell the herbs and oil heating up, without even using the carrots yet. The long, slow confit method of cooking for the carrots really imparts a subtle flavor throughout. If you ever wake up with a craving for carrots like me, go ahead and try this recipe out. Everyone is sure to love it!