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The versatility of the carrot

Consider the carrot. Not the bland, prepackaged, overpriced "baby-cut" excuses for carrots that are wooing consumers countrywide; rather, the fresh-from-the-earth, recognizable, bright-orange kind of carrot complete with green curly tops and true carrot flavor.

When carrots were first cultivated in Central Asia more than 2,000 years ago, the most common varieties ranged from green to purple. The first carrots were cultivated as a food crop only in the Orient. Elsewhere they were valued for legendary medicinal qualities, the cure for everything from night blindness to whooping cough to amorous inabilities.

It was only around the 18th century that the bright orange variety _ orange because of high amounts of beta carotene _ became widely popular, (only rarely are other colors seen today), but, even then, carrots weren't immediately appreciated for their culinary potential. For example, in France it was the feathery leaves of carrots that were favored by mavens of haute couture as fashion accoutrements. Today, of course, everyone loves to eat carrots, perhaps because the baby-boom generation was indoctrinated by Bugs Bunny cartoons.

HOW TO BUY: Available year-round, carrots come in dozens of varieties with little difference in taste and nutrition. The most pronounced difference in flavor is between real baby or young carrots and older, longer, prepackaged carrots.

When selecting carrots with the greens attached, look for bright green tops and smooth, firm carrots. Always check the tips for decay or resprouting. Likewise, avoid carrots that are cracked or withered.

HOW TO STORE: Remove the green leaves before storing because they draw moisture and vitamins from the carrot. Refrigerate carrots in a plastic bag in the vegetable bin. Do not store them near apples because the carrots will take on a bitter taste.

HOW TO CLEAN: Young carrots need only a light rinsing; the flavor is in the outer layer. Older carrots should be scrubbed and lightly peeled.

HOW TO PREPARE: How not to prepare them? Carrots are the diplomats of root vegetables, mixing equally well with a number of preparation techniques and flavors. Tonight shall it be steamed, boiled, braised, roasted, stir-fried, pureed, dried, juiced or glazed and with butter, olive oil, peanut oil, thyme, ginger, cumin, mint, mustard, maple syrup or curry?

It's not by chance that carrots are such a popular baby food. Nutritious and naturally sweet, carrots are undeniably one of nature's greatest inventions. They make a great flavor enhancer, evidenced by their undeniable presence in stocks and soups, and cooks can easily concentrate said sweetness by roasting sliced carrots _ sprinkled with salt and seasonings and drizzled with olive oil _ in a 425-degree oven for 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the slices, or toss some chunks in the pan next time you make roast chicken, beef or pork.

Glaze carrots by simmering slices in butter with honey or apple cider until tender, then toss with fresh mint. Saute them in olive oil with crushed cumin seeds, cayenne pepper, paprika, a touch of cinnamon and salt until tender, then toss with lemon juice and parsley or simply toss carrots in a hot pan with butter and add a few sugar snap peas during the last minute of cooking.

When cooking carrots in any type of liquid, chef and author Deborah Madison advises, use as little liquid as possible and incorporate what remains into the final dish to emphasize the flavor, as in a carrot puree or sauce.

For the time-deprived, dunk them raw in a hummus dip. Juice them with a bit of ginger root (preferably immediately prior to serving before the greenish tinge of oxidation sets in) or eat them out of hand.