Heirloom Food Stories

Connecting you to beauty, wisdom, and intuition in your kitchen

Each month, my friend Gina Lorubbio deeply explores one fruit or vegetable so we can connect with the whole stories—the joys, hardships, and curiosities—behind the foods we grow in our gardens and prepare in our kitchens.

If you like these stories, you might enjoy her new offering, Heirloom Mail. It’s a monthly food learning adventure in a box that highlights one handpicked (surprise!) ingredient and art, stories, and cultural wisdom behind it.

You’ll learn and grow as a home cook, one ingredient at a time. Check out more details and subscribe here.

The Carrot: use your veggies from stem to end

In the first week of October 2017, my husband Bjarke and I packed all of our belongings in a Honda Civic and set out on a 2-month road trip across the U.S. Every square inch of the trunk was methodically filled with clothes, kitchen tools, and books that we don’t need until we arrive at our destination of Ohio. The back seat holds items for everyday living—there’s my gray backpack we call “the office” wedged next to the small, white cooler we call “the fridge” that balances upon the big blue bag we call “the dresser.”

Each time we dig through bags and boxes to unearth whatever we need next, we are reminded of the volume and energy our stuff consumes. Because of that, every item we carry must serve a purpose in order to continue the journey. There are no redundancies, and we try to get full use out of everything we have.

Camp Kitchen

“The kitchen”—stove, plates, pot, cups, utensils, and cutting board—packs up into one carry-on roller bag. I’ve actually been having a lot of fun cooking within these restraints. At mealtimes, I find ways to systematically cook in our single small pot atop a high-efficiency gas camp stove. The fuel is contained and finite. I can feel the canister emptying with each use.

Camping in our little car with our little one-and-a-half-person tent has made me think harder about getting the most from our food and equipment. I like this challenge—and I know we are lucky to choose to undertake it, rather than being forced into it by budgetary limits.

Carrot curry camp

I’ve arrived at the camp stove and my culled supplies with over a year and a half of intentional practice trying to do more with less in the kitchen. The shift began when I read a chapter in my beloved copy of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal titled “How to Catch Your Tail.” In it, Adler poetically prescribes all sorts of second lives for leftovers we often deem as scraps: you can turn bones into broth, orange peels into marmalade, and stale bread into breadcrumbs.

Since reading about “catching my tail,” I’ve been trying to use every bit of the foods I buy. Cooking on the road out of a small car has made it imperative.

This type of thinking has already gained traction with nose-to-tail butchery, in which every part of the animal is used. Why not nose-to-tail, or rather, stem-to-end veggies?

Carrot stem to end

Use your veggies from stem to end.

With this awareness, I began saving skins, stems, and stubs to make flavorful vegetable stock out of items that would normally be chucked in the compost. I made more of an effort to buy veggies that typically come to us trimmed and manicured. With the wisdom of how to put the undervalued veggie bits to good use, I unlocked what feels like a bunch of buy-one-get-one-free deals on my produce.

The carrot has been a central symbol in these efforts. Picture a whole carrot—leafy green tops, skins, and root ends intact. Now picture a more familiar form—a bag of baby carrots or even whole carrots sans green tops. We typically purchase carrots that are missing at least two-thirds of their nutrient and flavor potential. Tamar Adler inspired me to use every part of the carrot.

Carrots, three ways.

First, I tried the tops. After I first bought carrots with their tops at the grocery store, I quickly learned to stay alert. Had I not been ready to interject before the conveyor belt delivered the carrots into her hands, the cashier would have twisted off and trashed the precious greenery in one swift, subconscious movement.

Once home, I washed my rescued parsley-like tops, rough-chopped them, and ground them to paste along with olive oil, toasted nuts, garlic, a handful of basil, and salt in batches in my mortar and pestle (food processor works, too). I stirred a cup of parmesan cheese into the earthy, garlicky sauce to complete the carrot-top pesto.

Carrot top pestoMy carrot-top pesto.

Second, I found use for the too-tough carrot top stems and stubby ends. I saved them, along with onion skins and herb scraps in a container I kept in the fridge and added to throughout the week. Once it was full or when I had time—whichever came first—I threw the contents in a stockpot along with a bay leaf, some peppercorns, and a sprinkle of salt, and filled the pot with water. Simmered for 30-60 minutes and strained, this became versatile vegetable stock. There are endless variations—this method can put old parmesan rinds or last night’s chicken bones to good use, too.

And finally, there’s the skin. I stopped peeling carrots after I skipped the step one meal and realized nothing was that different. I find that a good scrub to remove dirt from carrots grown without pesticides is plenty for most of my purposes. Some folks find that the skin adds bitterness, while others like the additional kick of fiber. Try it yourself and see where you land. Balance any bitterness with something sweet like honey or maple syrup or something acidic like citrus or vinegar.

How to grow carrots

What to plant. Choose a variety that will work with the soil you have. For example, Chantenay and Danvers carrots can handle heavy or shallow soil. Nantes and Imperator carrots need deep, loose soil. Experiment with growing purple, yellow, or white carrots, too! It’s nice to have a pop of bright color when the temperature cools.

When to plant. Carrots are a cool-season crop that can tolerate frost. Plant seeds outside 3-5 weeks before the last spring frost date. Plant again every 2-3 weeks after that to have carrots all season long. They take 70-80 days to mature, so plant your last round 2-3 months before the fall frost date. (For winter carrots, see “How to overwinter” below.)

Where to plant. Find loose, uncompacted soil free of stones so the carrots can shoot downwards. Full sun is great, though they’ll tolerate a bit of shade.

How to plant. Double-dig your soil or use a raised bed so you get loose soil your carrots will like. Drop about 6 seeds to an inch in rows that are a foot apart. Don’t use fresh manure, as that can cause carrots to fork. Apply mulch and water gently so the seeds stay in place.

How to maintain. They’ll take about 1-3 weeks to sprout. When plants reach 2 inches tall, thin them out so each plant is 1 inch apart. This prevents crooked roots. Use scissors to cut off the stems instead of pulling them out so you don’t damage the other roots. Thin again 2 weeks later to 3-4 inches apart. Water 1 inch per week and keep up with weeding.

How to harvest. Carrots are ready around 2.5 months after they’ve reached 1/2 inch diameter. It’s flexible, though — harvest when they look like carrots you want to eat. Harvest in succession or all at once. Grab the green stems close to the ground and firmly pull from the soil. Use a trowel to loosen soil before you pull. Watering the area before harvest can also ease the pulling. Carrots are biennial, so if you leave them in the ground, the tops will flower and produce seeds for a second year.

How to store. Scrub off the dirt, let them dry, and refrigerate in airtight bags or containers. To store for winter, twist off the tops and shake off the soil—but don’t wash them—and layer in tubs of damp sand to last through winter.

How to overwinter. Plant seeds in August for winter harvest. Weed the area around mature carrots well. Heavily mulch and press it snug against the tops. You may consider marking the carrots, as the tops will die back in the cold and the roots may be difficult to locate. Harvest as you need them throughout winter, being sure to use them all up before spring when they’ll start to flower. Napoli, Nelson, and Mokum are good winter carrot varieties.

What we can learn from the carrot’s own resourcefulness.

Carrots are also the perfect veggie to reference when discussing resourcefulness because of what happens if you leave them out in the cold.

When you put carrots under the stress of freezing temperatures, a survival mechanism kicks in that converts starches to sugars. The sugars protect them from freezing, and they happen to become sweeter, crispier, and more nutritious as a result.

This process, called “chill sweetening,” is one I heard about from Dan Barber, writer, food activist, and owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He offered this anecdote as a guest on Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast. It’s a brilliant conversation, one that affects me to this day. Here’s his reaction to the Brix test they did on carrots they grew in mid-February on the Stone Barns Center farm:

“We squeezed a little bit of carrot juice on a refractometer, which measures part per billion of sugar, and it registered this Mokum carrot 13.8…13.8 percent of this small carrot was pure sugar. Now we, just for curiosity’s sake, took a Brix measuring of a carrot that we used for stocks in the restaurant. It’s an organic carrot, the kind of carrot you’d find in like a Whole Foods…What did it measure on the Brix? 0.0…By the way, there’s increasingly a direct connection between Brix levels and nutrient density… Of course, the best-flavored food would also be the healthiest and the most nutrient dense.”

The carrot maximizes what it has to create something tasty and nutritious. That’s exactly what I’m advocating for in our home kitchens.

Garden Ripe Carrots

This philosophy extends beyond the single ingredient and to the whole farm.

This one example from Barber’s work is part of a whole philosophy that he wrote about in his book Third Plate, which I had the privilege of hearing about in person at a reading in Portland. The book’s title references Barber’s explanation about the evolution of the typical American meal:

The first plate is from over a decade ago: a seven-ounce corn-fed steak with steamed baby carrots.

The second plate represents the shift led by the recent farm-to-table movement: grass-fed steak and heirloom carrots grown in organic soil.

The third plate offers a look into the future: a slab of carrot “steak” with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.

The whole book criticizes the farm-to-table movement—one that Barber had championed—for touting “cream crops” like asparagus which remove nutrients from soil and are expensive to grow, and paying no attention to rotational crops like buckwheat which are required to replenish the soil’s nutrients.

Barber argues that we cannot simply eat one product from a farm. We must support and utilize the whole ecological system. I believe this applies to many dimensions, all the way down to the carrots tucked in the crisper drawer of your fridge. We cannot afford to use one part of a vegetable. We must utilize every tasty, nutritious, and useful morsel of it.

Skins for stock

Practice this in your own kitchen: use every part.

  • Start a scrap container in your fridge and make a skins-and-stems vegetable stock like I outlined above. Throw in any or all of these: garlic and onion skins; herb stems; mushroom pieces; hard cheese rinds; meat or fish bones; carrot, celery, and onion stubs; and anything else that still has flavor to give.
  • Learn about the farm systems in your area by visiting or talking to a farmer. What cover crops do they grow that they can’t sell due to lack of demand? Show interest in cooking with those crops—it’s a small step, but that’s how markets start.
  • Consider a volunteer shift at an organization that redistributes leftover foods to people who will utilize them. In Portland, we have Urban Gleaners. Perhaps there’s a similar operation near you.
  • Make your own carrot top pesto. Play with the recipe; you can sub walnuts or hazelnuts for macadamias and swap out the basil with parsley. I like to spoon the pesto into ice cube trays, freeze, pop them out, and re-store them in a Ziploc in the freezer. That way, you can pull a cube out to brighten a dish on a day when you could use a boost of inspiration

Have fun getting scrappy!

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If you liked this story, you might really enjoy my new offering, Heirloom Mail. It’s a monthly “food learning adventure in a box” that highlights one handpicked (surprise!) ingredient with art, stories, and cultural wisdom behind it. You’ll learn and grow as a home cook, one ingredient at a time.

If this type of hands-on food exploration is up your alley, check out more details and subscribe for Christmas by November 20th right here.

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