Saturday, May 5, 2007

Featured Vegetable: Purple Carrots

The New Mighty Maroon Carrot
The noble carrot has long been known as an orange vegetable. Generations of people in the West have grown up believing that carrots are always orange. But as long ago as 2000 BC temple drawings from Egypt show a plant believed to be a purple carrot. It is also identified in the garden of the Egyptian King Merodach-Baladan in the eighth century BC. In Roman times carrots were purple or white. By the 10th century purple carrots were grown in Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern Iran. Purple, white and yellow carrots were imported to southern Europe in the 14th century. Black, red and green carrots were also grown.
Orange roots, containing the pigment carotene, were not noted until the 16th century in Holland. This only came about thanks to patriotic Dutch growers who bred the vegetable to grow in the colours of the House of Orange. Experts believe Dutch breeders used a yellow mutant seed from North Africa to develop the orange variety and then stuck to it through breeding. Their colour comes from beta carotene with some alpha carotene, a pigment the body converts to Vitamin A, which is essential for healthy skin and vision in dim light. Dutch breeders recently studied the health qualities of purple carrots and believe they give us extra protection against various forms of cancer and heart disease. They contain purple pigments called anthocyanins, and act as anti-oxidants that protect the body.
Some people look at it and say that's one ugly carrot," says Leonard Pike, Ph.D. "But then other people think it's the most beautiful thing they've ever seen." Pike is referring to his latest creation: Maroon in colour, apple-like in texture and sugary in flavour, it's known as the Beta-Sweet carrot. For traditionalists who like their carrots to look and taste like, well carrots, the Beta Sweet can be a little off-putting.

The gene responsible for purple or maroon colour is a natural one that has been around for many years and, in fact, has been segregated out and discarded when it appeared in order to retain the traditional orange colour for carrots. In 1989, three carrots grown from Brazilian seed were observed to have a blotchy maroon colour mixed with the normal range, which gave Dr Pike an idea. Initially, he planned to develop a maroon carrot for home gardeners, similar to the long lost wild carrot from Afghanistan. He produced a maroon and deep orange Beta Sweet carrot, which matched the school's colours. Pike may have conceived this variety on a fanciful whim, but he soon learned that the purple pigment contained anthocyanins, which act as tough antioxidants, boosting the carrot's nutritional properties. The irony here is that Pike has actually put back what growers, in the name of aesthetics, took out years ago. Naturally, carrots are either white or white with a purple rim, but the old breeders selected the orange carrot for its unconventional colouring!
Within two generations of breeding effort, he obtained a few a carrot roots with near complete maroon exterior and orange interior. The contrast of orange and maroon was very attractive in carrots cut into coins or sticks. The research objective changed instantly from developing a novelty carrot into a 'designer' carrot variety with all the flavour, nutrition and health requirements possible. Its curious colour comes from anthocyanin, another antioxidant that preliminary studies show effectively fights disease-causing bacteria in humans. Early man used food to prevent disease. For a long time, the medical profession has treated disease with drugs and surgery. Now, we are seeing a return to prevention and an emphasis on disease-preventing vegetables. The purple carrot is a potent antioxidant, right along with blackberries, blueberries and cherries.
It is also sweet and very attractive when cut into 'coins' or sticks. It only has a texture similar to an apple, but not the taste. And how do they cook? Sliced and roasted for a salad, the colours darkened but remained true to their hue. Maroon carrots can be used in any carrot recipe, but if left raw, either shredded into a coleslaw or dipped into a garlic mayonnaise, the colours, flavour and texture really shine. You will find maroon carrots sweeter and a touch crisper than their orange cousins.

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