On a scale of ho-hum to exotic, the humble carrot rarely rates above a yawn.
It lacks the style of asparagus, the charm of a big, plump leek and is associated more with the likes of Bugs Bunny than George Clooney.
But there are times when this worker-bee veggie shines through. One night, I encountered it as a positively addictive appetizer while waiting for a table at a Greek restaurant in Stratford, England. The carrots had been julienne-cut into matchstick size and were stewing in a saucer of vodka, hot peppers and vinegar — an unusual combination, but effective.
I also love how carrots provide a simple splash of color in a winter salad; and the way they travel to a picnic without wilting. Kids like them, or at least appreciate their function for spearing olives, and dieters devour them with guilt-free abandon.
In fact, my favorite road food — when covering long distances alone in the car — is a bag of carrots and a jar of pickles. The contrasting flavors and textures keep me lively, even through the dullest stretches of Interstate 5.
About the only exciting bit of drama associated with this colorful veggie is the fact that baby carrots aren't really baby carrots. Shocked? Well, check the package, and you'll probably see that what you've purchased actually are what the industry calls "baby cuts" — made from larger carrots that have been peeled and cut into smaller sizes.
But thanks to a bit of careful breeding, most carrots destined for the baby-carrot market are relatively petite and coreless with a nice level of sweetness. Indeed, the world's largest carrot grower, Grimmway Farms, has developed a hybrid that combines the best qualities from more than 250 known commercial varieties to produce a sweet and crunchy eating experience.
Consumers have embraced the trend wholeheartedly, making baby carrots the fastest-growing segment of the carrot industry and outselling every other veggie in the produce aisle, according to reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Right now, carrots of all sizes coming into local markets are of delightfully high quality. Here are a few of my favorite ways to enjoy them.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.