Saturday, May 29, 2010

Savoury carrot tartlets with vanilla salt

The carrot is the orange constant, always just there and never really seen. Versatile, sweet, crunchy, easy to cook (steam, bake, poach, stir-fry) and delicious raw, useful as an aromatic in stock and in a sofrito base for risotto and ragu. Yawn. It is a vegetable easily taken for granted, eaten without thought or admiration.

It is a fact not generally acknowledged that carrots are a seasonal vegetable. Carrots are of course a remarkably resilient root crop, and will grow with good humour all year round in almost any conditions. But they really do come into their own in late autumn, which seems fitting as the beautiful rich orange of modern day carrots seems to fit so elegantly with the orange-red-gold-brown-purple of the autumn leaves and the dusky watercolour skies.

Modern day carrots, because like so make fruits and vegetables, the carrot has been subject to a process of long-term selective breeding, a natural genetic modification whereby the most delicious and desired crops are selectively chosen and reproduced*. Farmers markets and home vegetable patches continue to reveal heirloom varieties in yellow and red and purple and creamy white.

With their universal availability and their universal versatility, it is easy to let the carrot take a back seat, filling in the space around the main event, providing the background depth of flavour to a more interesting meal. Switching my thinking around to what goes well with carrot, as opposed to what will carrots go well with. The carrot at the centre and not just a side dish or base ingredient. What freshness is needed to offset the sweetness? What method of cooking meat will yield something soft and strong enough to enhance and showcase their woody earthiness? Can carrot truly shine on its own?

Carrot puree reduces carrot to the essence of carrot flavour. Without the characteristic shape or crunch, this method narrows the focus of the palate onto taste and taste alone. Healthy, unusual and visually striking. It is incredible just how intense the carrotness is: light and fluffy, it is beautiful warm as a sauce smeared underneath a thick slice of grass-fed eye fillet cooked sous-vide. Or with parsley and almond meal crusted pan fried fish. Or as below, chilled and used as a filling for savoury tartlets. In tart form, the carrot is on its own, entirely. It would have easy to enhance it with cumin or corriander or even maple or honey. But I wanted a pairing at once more subtle and more uncommon. Something that demonstrated the elevation of carrot from the background to star-status.

Hence vanilla: both carrot and vanilla, away from their familiar and comfortable surrounds. Not to be taken for granted.

* Rumour has it that our homogenous orange carrots are in fact the result of a preference in Holland for breeding vegetables in honour of the royal family (the house of Orange). However, the orange carrot, along with purple, red, yellow and white varieties is known to have been actively cultivated for thousands of years, across the Middle East, continental Europe, Asia and North Africa. The World Carrot Museum has a wealth of information regarding the origins, cultivation and use of carrots, as well as the history of carrots in art and world events.

Carrot tartlets with vanilla salt

These tartlets were inspired by the recipe for
vanilla salt from Not Without Salt, and the throw-away suggestion that the salt can be sprinkled on glazed carrots.

Carrot puree

Serves 4

4 or more large carrots, peeled finely grated
50 g butter or 2 tbsp olive oil

Melt butter in a large saucepan until foaming. Add grated carrots, stir. Reduce heat to very low, cover and let steam for about half an hour, stirring occasionally. Continue to cook until the carrot has collapsed (it is dissolve when squeezed between thumb and finger). Do not add any water – the idea is to concentrate the carrot flavour.

Let cool slightly, then transfer to a blender and blend until smooth and fluffy – the carrot will change colour sightly, turning a slightly lighter shade as more air is incorporated. (For the tarts below you can add ½ tsp scrapped vanilla if you like, otherwise season to taste and serve with poach vegetables or steamed fish or lightly poach beef fillet or grilled chicken).

For tarts shells:

1 packet phyllo pastry (8 sheets will make approximately 40-50 miniature tart shells)
¼ cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 200ºc.

Working with sheets of phyllo pastry, brush a sheet with olive oil, then place another sheet on top, and brush with oil, until four sheets are layered

Cut into squares big enough to make a rough little tart shell inside a muffin tray. Line a muffin tray, cook for about 5 minutes, or until brown and crisp. When cool enough to touch, remove and let on a rack to cool. Tart shells will stay crisp for about 25 hours (but will start to soften in contact with moisture, including a filling).

For carrot tarts:

Just before serving, fill each tart shell (I used a piping bag – it’s neat and quick). Sprinkle generously with vanilla salt, serve within half an hour.

1 comment:

  1. That looks lovely! I shall be trying this one. I have never had vanilla salt and would have never thought of pairing it with carrots.