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Nov. 26, 2022

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Clark County chefs root for carrots

Versatile and tasty, humble carrot is poised to become the next ‘It’ vegetable

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Elements Restaurant owner and chef Miguel Sosa features carrots on his menu often because of their versatility, for example, in this ahi tuna with soy confit carrots.
Elements Restaurant owner and chef Miguel Sosa features carrots on his menu often because of their versatility, for example, in this ahi tuna with soy confit carrots. (Contributed by Elements Restaurant) Photo Gallery

Cauliflower had its moment. Buffalo cauliflower wings, cauliflower rice and cauliflower steak popped up on menus at various restaurants. Then corn ribs, quartered corn cobs seasoned and air fried until curly, took over TikTok and everyone lost their plant-based minds.

While these vegetables basked in the light of this temporary attention, carrots quietly took over the plant-based section of menus in Portland and Vancouver.

I first got an inkling of the potential for this orange root vegetable when I met Chef Juan Miguel Sosa as he was opening his restaurant, Elements, four years ago. Sosa shared an array of fascinating culinary ideas with equally interesting presentations. At the end of the menu for his new restaurant was a dessert he proudly presented to me — a carrot cake baked in a flowerpot.

Lately carrots have been appearing in restaurants around Portland and Vancouver. I first saw a carrot doing something strange on a recent trip to Portland. Ben & Esther’s, with its goal of making a vegan Jewish deli a normal thing, offers vegan lox made with carrot. As someone who grew up eating bagel and lox for special family occasions, I was skeptical, but the carrot lox had a nice smoky flavor and silky texture without the fishy aftertaste.

My next carrot encounter was a birthday celebration with my husband at República in Portland. One of the courses was carrot, habanero, and pepitas with the carrots presented in three different ways. The next week we celebrated with our kids (because birthdays should last an entire week) at Urban Farmer, also in Portland. A roasted carrot salad with cashew butter, toasted pepitas, and fall spice vinaigrette sat on the salad list just above classics like Caesar salad and a tender greens salad with orchard fruit, crispy quinoa and honey-sherry vinaigrette.

On this side of the river, Little Conejo offered a carrot pastor taco with adobo marinated smoked carrots, avocado salsa, crema, onion and cilantro for years, although the restaurant has since taken it off the menu. Mav’s Taphouse (which also offers corn ribs) recently served a St. Patrick’s Day special of corned beef and cabbage with a traditional take — tender cooked carrots tucked into the side of the dish. Carrots often make an appearance on Rally Pizza’s seasonal roasted vegetables platter. In November, the platter featured carrots nestled with Walla Walla onions, shishito peppers, potatoes, and delicata squash and drizzled with sauces like tomatillo salsa, smoky romesco and rose petal harissa.

What’s with all the carrots?

I decided to go back to Sosa for answers.

“Carrots have been on my menu for a long time,” he said.

He called the humble carrot “a really good vehicle.”

“You can braise it without it falling apart,” he said. “There’s so many things you can do with a carrot because it’s not full of starch and it’s not too sweet. Parsnips, another root vegetable like carrots, fall apart and get mushy. When you make a pot roast, the only vegetable that survives is a carrot.”

One of the first dishes Sosa created when he started in the business 20 years ago was a carrot-ginger puree with scallops. Since then, he’s continued to push this orange root vegetable to its limits. He offered one dish that included 10 different carrot preparations including a carrot caviar and a carrot mousseline (a mix of carrots, orange juice, water and ginger blended then emulsified with extra virgin olive oil, creating a rich texture and bright yellow color).

He’s currently working on coffee-braised carrots. The carrots cook for 12 hours on low heat in a mix of coffee grounds, vanilla bean, cocoa and brown sugar, resulting in a silky texture and a sweet and not overly salty flavor, sort of like a caffé mocha.

Carrots can be seared, smoked, dry aged and cooked for hours yet never lose their structure completely. In addition, for restaurants like Elements that source from local farmers, carrots are easy to find and they grow all year round.

“It’s one of the vegetables I always turn to,” Sosa said.

I also checked in with Chef Mark Lopez, owner of Gather and Feast Farm and Crave Catering, to get his perspective on this carrot trend. Lopez remembers going to a Culinary Breeding Network event in Portland at The Nines Hotel years ago. Chef Maya Lovelace, owner of Mae and Yonder, presented a dish of sorghum dipped carrots that tasted like chocolate dipped bananas with peanuts that blew his mind and could have created a carrot-mania among the farmers, breeders and chefs in attendance.

“I’ve been noticing carrots for a while,” Lopez said.

He likes to use carrots in his catering business because they’re a very forgiving vegetable. They can be cooked, then transported to an event, then reheated and still keep their flavor and shape. Years ago, while catering for film crews that wanted healthy things like turkey bacon, he thought of making carrot bacon. Recently, he saw a carrot bacon recipe on social media.

Carrots may be a chef’s darling, but for farmers they’re a difficult crop. When Lopez first started Gather and Feast Farm, he grew produce at a spot in Battle Ground with large river rocks in the ground. The rocks caused the carrots to grow crooked.

Through his years of farming, Lopez discovered that carrots aren’t the easiest to grow. They require sandy, loamy soil and lots of moisture. They get stuck in dense clay soil. Each seed yields just one carrot, so for continuous carrot production a farmer must reseed. Carrots also have a relatively long growing time, it’s hard to tell when they’re ready to harvest because they’re underground and harvesting them is labor intensive. Pulling carrots out of the muddy ground in the winter is an unpleasant and messy task.

Conventionally grown carrots at the supermarket have a uniform size and shape, but at farmers markets they tend to be a bit more varied. Lopez shared a booth with Flat Tack Farm at the Vancouver Farmers Market last season and experienced carrot envy.

“I was jealous of Flat Tack’s beautiful carrot tops, but their carrots were short. We had wispy tops and long carrots,” he said.

Despite the challenges of growing carrots, Lopez believes they will continue to appear on restaurant menus in new and interesting ways.

“I think it’s something we’ll keep seeing,” Lopez said. “You can serve them raw, shaved, grilled, roasted and the tops make cool garnishes.”

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