Chef Alistair Dibbs, of Hallingbury Events Company, shares his recipe for carrot tarte tatin
Top chef Alistair Dibbs, from Little Hallingbury, extols the virtues of growing, cooking and eating your own food...
If there is one word that perfectly sums up the humble carrot, then that word is versatile!
The simple carrot simply oozes both versatility and elegance in the right hands. It is equally at home in the grandest of three-Michelin-star restaurants or accompanying a deliciously hearty roast beef served in the local pub.
For many people, carrots form some of their most formative food memories. They are right up there as the go-to choice of parents desperate to get an early fix of vitamins and minerals into their offspring – usually blended into a pretty ghastly beige puree to form baby food or chopped up raw to be dipped into another vegetable puree! On the positive side, after an initiation to the carrot like this the only way is up!
Carrots are the real all-rounder of the vegetable world and have it all – a unique depth of flavour and sweetness and striking colours in a variety of vivid shades. They can be served raw, cured, cooked, pureed, mashed, in cakes, as juice and even in sorbets and ice creams – the list goes on. I even know of a pesto recipe utilising carrot peelings and using walnuts instead of pine nuts.
However, if you simply want to elevate your carrots from a rather drab run-of-the-mill accompaniment (a pet hate of mine) by extracting maximum flavour from them, try Heston Blumenthal's superb recipe for glazed carrots. The amount of butter he uses more than cancels out any health benefits of the carrots themselves, but more than makes up for it with bucketloads of flavour. He basically poaches them in butter, adds a little sugar to bring out the sweetness and uses a little thyme or caraway seed for an additional flavour profile.
There are many other flavours which go well with carrots – orange, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander, star anise, cloves and walnut to name but a few.
The old wives' tale that carrots are good for your sight has more than a nugget of truth in it as not only are they absolutely packed full of vitamin A, they also contain two sight-enhancing antioxidants – lutein and zeaxanthin. The health benefits don't stop there as carrots have been proved to support skin and lung health and to help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.
It is thought that the carrot originated in Iran and Afghanistan. Early carrots were white in colour (as other root vegetables still are such as turnip, celeriac and parsnip) and it was only after a mutant emerged affecting the white colour that yellow carrots were first produced before they were taken over by the demand for orange ones.
There is another rather more romantic story which is that orange carrots were cultivated by Dutch farmers in the mid 1500s to honour William of Orange, the founding father of Holland. Unfortunately it's just not true!
It's fair to say that my first attempt to grow carrots in the garden was pretty disastrous. I underestimated their need for certain really specific soil conditions and instead of raking the soil and removing lumps and stones, I simply gave the ground a quick rake over. Needless to say, mine came out looking like they had been grown near a certain Russian nuclear power station and I literally couldn't give them away.
To grow really good carrots, you need really fine, sandy soil as any lumps or stones in the soil will force the carrots to grow around them which usually leads to some very odd shaped or stunted carrots. If the soil has a high clay content and can't drain properly, this will lead to the carrots rotting in the ground.
Carrots take around three months to grow to a good size, so I usually sow mine in September for a late-November harvest. They are one of the few vegetables that I sow directly into the ground but equally can be started off in a propagator on the window sill. Thin them out when they are a couple of inches tall and leave them to work their magic.
Alistair's recipe for a carrot tarte tatin
My recipe this week is one that I developed whilst working with Scottish chef Tom Kitchin. I make it with carrots grown in the garden, but it works equally well with shop-bought ones.
I sometimes finish these tarts off with a small disk of lightly grilled goat's cheese which contrasts well with the sweet carrot and also adds another colour element.
400g shop-bought puff pastry
500g carrots, peeled
4 star anise
100g orange blossom honey
100ml white wine vinegar
For the caramelised onions
500g onions, sliced
60g caster sugar
80ml balsamic vinegar
2 sprigs of thyme
Sea salt and black pepper
First make the caramelised onions. Place a heavy pan on a medium heat and melt the butter before adding the onions and sweating them for 15 minutes. Next add the salt, pepper, caster sugar and vinegar and slowly cook for another 20 minutes until all liquid has evaporated and it is a dark rich colour. Check the seasoning and set it aside to cool down.
Cut the carrots into at least 24 batons, each around 12cm long and 1cm thick, and place them in a saucepan. Cover them with water, add a pinch of salt and gently boil them until they are al dente. Refresh them under cold water, drain them and set aside.
Now cut the puff pastry into four disks, each around 3mm thick and 15cm in diameter. Heat a small heavy frying pan and add a quarter of the butter, honey and white wine vinegar to it, keeping the heat on medium to allow these ingredients to gently caramelise.
Take six carrot batons and place them next to each other. Place a cutter on top of the carrots (this cutter needs to be 2cm smaller than the one used to cut out the pastry disk) and cut the carrots to form a circle. Transfer the carrots to the pan (keeping them in the circle formation) and let them cook for two minutes in the caramel to gain a bit of colour. Add a star anise to the pan.
Meanwhile, spread two tablespoons of caramelised onions onto each of the pastry disks, smoothing the onions down but leaving a 2cm border free from the onion around the edge of the pastry.
Gently transfer one of the pastry disks to the pan and place it over the carrots - the onion must be facing down towards the pan. Using your fingers, press down the pastry to form a lip all around the carrots and transfer the pan to the oven and bake for around 15 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.
Remove the tart from the oven and leave it to rest for five minutes. Flip the pan over to release the tart from the pan and place on a plate. Repeat three more times to make three more tarts. If you have a large pan, you can easily make all four tarts at the same time.
I usually serve the tart hot with dressed rocket and goat's cheese.