Recipe: Carrots with Cumin, Olives, and Basil
There is a Moroccan dish of carrots seasoned with cumin and lemon that I’ve never liked. Somehow the combination tastes harsh to me. I do like the idea of cumin with carrots, though, and I’ve always wanted to create a more Southern Italian, I suppose Sicilian-inspired, rendition of it. I guess what has until now stopped me from going ahead with it was the fact that I’ve never tasted cumin in any Sicilian cooking. I don’t think they use it at all. They certainly incorporate many Arab spices, such as saffron, cinnamon, bay, black pepper, and even ginger sometimes, and, after all, they even cook couscous. But cumin is not popular with the Sicilians.
I’ve been seeing beautiful bunches of multicolored carrots at my Greenmarket lately. Pinkish orange, bright orange, dark plum, yellow, magenta. Just looking at them can make a bad day good. I bought a few bunches and learned a few things. First of all, I discovered that colored carrots, yellow and dark red ones specifically, have been around for a thousand years at least, but in the last fifty years or so farmers have been experimenting with pigments to create many new colors. I also learned that when I cut into the dark red ones, they weren’t red through and through but either bright yellow or orange at the center. That was amazing. I also noticed that these weird colored carrots are very firm and take longer to cook than the usual ones. I could sense this just by their feel, so I went ahead and blanched them first. I wasn’t sure if they’d give up some of their color, the way beets do, but I was happy to discover that they don’t, really. Just a bit, turning the blanching water palest pink.
I decided to go ahead with my cumin thought, creating a kinder, gentler cumin carrot. First off, I nixed the lemon. Then I added a pinch of sugar and a few garlic cloves—whole, not sliced—just for an undertone of flavor. I added a handful of black olives. They looked beautiful mingling with all the various carrot colors. And to pull it decidedly in an Italian direction, I added Marsala, and then basil at the last minute. I was really pleased with the taste. I’m not sure if any Sicilian would recognize this as a dish from home, but to me it somehow seems very Sicilian in spirit.
Carrots with Cumin, Olives, and Basil
(Serves 6 as a first course or side dish)
2 bunches carrots, the multicolored ones if you can find them
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon ground cumin
3 garlic cloves, peeled
A big splash of dry Marsala
A handful of wrinkled black Moroccan olives
A handful of basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
Peel the carrots and cut them into thick sections, on an angle.
Set up a pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add a bit of salt. Add the carrots, and blanch them for 2 minutes. Drain them into a colander, and then run cold water over them to bring up their color. Drain well.
In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil with the butter. Add the sugar, cumin, and garlic. Add the carrots, seasoning them with salt and black pepper. Sauté everything around for a few minutes to further soften the carrots and to blend all the flavors. Add the Marsala, and let it boil away. Add a splash of warm water and an extra drizzle of olive oil, partially cover the skillet, and cook until the carrots are tender, about 4 minutes. You should have a nice, moist glaze on the carrots. Pour them into a large serving bowl. Add the olives and the basil, and give everything a toss. Serve hot or warm.