Recipe: Braised Carrots with Marsala and Basil
I have to admit something culinarily weird about me. I sometimes can’t tell the difference between certain local, seasonal vegetables and the ones I get at my supermarket in the middle of winter (am I being duped?). I mean just about all fruit, including tomatoes of course, and fresh garlic, those are exceptions. But most root vegetables, like onions, beets, parsnips, and things like cabbages, celery, some lettuces, chicories, or cauliflower taste about the same to my finely tuned palate (and dammit I do have a finely tuned palate). The smell of the seasonal stuff is stronger, but once it’s cooked I often can’t tell. Anyone else out there harboring this secret?
Carrots are a different matter. Supermarket carrots are often bitter, with a soapy aftertaste. You know when you cook up a puréed carrot soup in the winter and you give it a taste and you say to yourself, what exactly did I create here? It could be anything—butternut squash, vichyssoise. That’s so depressing. Try making that same soup right now, with sweet, crisp farmer’s market carrots. It will actually taste like carrots, I promise you. Oh, and the colors I can find them in, red, dark pink, yellow, rust, deep orange. It’s startling, and pretty glorious.
Carrots as a main event are not popular in Italy. They usually wind up in a soffrito, part of a savory underpinning for a sauce or a braise. One of the few dishes I’ve come across that highlight this vegetable is a Sicilian one, where carrots are cooked in the island’s Marsala wine. The carrots become infused with the wine’s musky flavor. I included a recipe for this dish, one that also contained capers, in my book The Flavors of Southern Italy, because I once saw something similar offered on an antipasti table in Trapani. It’s very good, but I’ve since decided I prefer a more mellow treatment. Now I often leave the capers out and finish the thing with a little basil. That makes a lovely summer offering, but one that delivers surprisingly deep flavor for something with so few ingredients. The quality of the carrots is paramount. But the other key is Marsala, a fortified wine like sherry or port. (Go for the best you can find. Florio is widely available and pretty decent, but if your wine seller suggests something she thinks is better, I don’t see any reason not to use it in cooking.) I’ve tried this dish with both sweet and dry Marsala, and even though I add a little sugar while cooking, I’ve found that the dry provides a more sophisticated flavor. I love this with an herby barbecued chicken.
Braised Carrots with Marsala and Basil
(Serves 4 as a first course or a side dish)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
About 10 medium-thick carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch batons about ½ inch thick
1 teaspoon sugar
5 big scrapings nutmeg
⅓ cup dry Marsala
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of small basil leaves, left whole
Choose a wide skillet with a lid that will more or less hold the carrots in one layer. Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the carrots, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Sauté about a minute or so, to lightly caramelize the sugar. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover the skillet, and simmer until the carrots are just tender, about 5 minutes or so.
When the carrots are about a minute away from done, uncover the skillet, and cook to let the liquid evaporate to a moist glaze. Add a drizzle of olive oil, and season with black pepper and a little more salt, if needed. Transfer to a serving dish, add the basil, and give it all a quick toss. Serve hot.