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Originally published August 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 8, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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A rainbow of carrots and flavors

The bouquet of scarlet, golden yellow, maroon and orange carrots looked like it should be wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a bow. But there it was...

Seattle Times Food staff

The bouquet of scarlet, golden yellow, maroon and orange carrots looked like it should be wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a bow. But there it was on a farmer's table, bound with a blue rubber band and tucked unceremoniously between the radishes and the beets.

These vibrantly stained roots aren't new. Varieties of purple and yellow carrots were grown in Afghanistan more than 1,000 years ago. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research magazine, today's carrots are packed with about 75 percent more beta-carotene than those available 25 years ago.

It was then that plant geneticist Philipp Simon and a team of scientists in the Agricultural Research Services Vegetable Crops Research Unit at Madison, Wis., began to breed carrots with an increased amount of beta-carotene. They discovered that the different pigments found in the colorful range of carrots performed selective functions in the human body.

For instance, red carrots contain more lycopene, a type of carotene believed to provide increased protection against heart disease and some cancers. Xanthophylls, which are pigments similar to beta-carotene that promote good eye health, are prevalent in yellow carrots. And purple carrots are packed with a class of strong antioxidants know as anthocyanins.

Farmer John Huschle works the land at Nature's Last Stand, a certified organic farm near Carnation. He grows an assortment of the unusual colorful varieties but is still partial to the more-familiar orange varieties. In the past, he's grown some of the specialties such as the Thumbelina, which is shaped like a radish and cooked whole. "To me it's less sweet and not as crunchy," said Huschle.

The flavor of carrots depends on their freshness. In a taste test comparing store-bought orange carrots with a yellow variety that Huschle sells at a number of the markets, the difference is amazing. They may not be as pretty, but they taste intensely sweet and earthy, with a crisp texture that is often missing from those harvested at larger farms.

The carrots from growers at Nature's Last Stand and Full Circle Farms, another Carnation-based organic farm, are sold with their tops, which deteriorate quickly and should be discarded before storing. (Full Circle also sells carrots through grocers such as PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods, although the supply tends to be sporadic.)

Carrots have always been one of the most versatile vegetables. They can be steamed or boiled, glazed with butter and brown sugar or stir-fried with Indian spices. When shredded, they can be folded into sweet batters; and when cut into raw julienne sticks or grated into delicate threads, they provide texture and a natural sweetness to salads.

It's the technique of roasting, however, that caramelizes and concentrates the sugars in root vegetables. Even testers who aren't fans of this vegetable loved the recipe for Roasted Orange-Paprika Carrots (See accompanying recipe).

Whether to peel carrots is a personal preference. Many of the carrots' nutrients are found in the skin, but that's also where much of the bitterness lies.

Carrots freeze well but should be blanched briefly to set the color and texture. First slice crosswise or on the diagonal into ¼-inch thick slices, or cut into ¼-inch-thick sticks or cubes. Drop about 2 cups at a time into boiling water and blanch 2 minutes; set the timer as soon as the carrots go into the water. Drain and rinse with cold water or drop into a large bowl of ice water until chilled. Drain and spread onto a baking sheet lined with several layers of paper towels; the drier the carrots are before freezing, the better the quality will be. Pack into freezer bags and use within 10 months.

If you want to try tilling the soil for your own crop of carrots, check out the online catalog from Osborne International Seed Company in Mount Vernon (osborneseed.com). The company offers a wide range of varieties, including a beautiful Prism Mix containing pastel shades of pink, yellow, white and orange, as well as golden yellow, dark purple and bright orange. Harvest a bouquet, wrap it in pretty paper and tie with a bow. Then share it with a friend.

CeCe Sullivan: csullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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