By John Navazio

Instead of basic orange, imagine dressing up your favorite entrees with purple, red, yellow, and even white carrots. These colorful varieties will not only enhance your cooking visually, but will contribute unique, spicy flavors to your dishes from culinary traditions around the world.

The ubiquitous orange carrot is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was first documented in Dutch paintings in the 1600s. But the first cultivated carrots, which originated in Afghanistan around a.d. 900, were purple. And then in the 10th century, yellow carrots were documented in the Middle East. These early purple and yellow carrots were used for human consumption as well as for animal fodder. By the 14th century, carrots had reached Europe and China. Europeans, preferring the yellow types for their tables, began selecting for culinary attributes such as flavor, texture, and storability. By the 1600s, white and orange carrots emerged on the scene, the latter being prized for the human diet, probably because of its rich color. Over the next 200 years, orange became the carrot color of choice.

Since orange carrots first became popular, they've received most of plant breeders' attention when it comes to improving their flavor, texture, and nutritional value, according to Dr. Phil Simon, a carrot breeder with the USDA in Madison, Wisconsin. Breeding hasn't been easy, because carrots are probably the most complex-flavored vegetable we eat. More than a hundred known volatile flavor compounds, mostly terpenoids, commonly occur in carrots. The type, quantity, and relative amount of these terpenoids can greatly affect carrot flavor, sometimes making them taste piney, soapy, bitter, or harsh. However, without terpenoids, carrots would lack their characteristic aromatic flavor. Most modern orange varieties have the proper balance between sugars and terpenoids that imparts a true carrot flavor and sweetness without any off-flavors.

Conversely, very little breeding has been done to improve the flavor of nonorange carrots, so these older varieties can have a virtual potluck of tastes. The flavor can be spicy or robust. These carrots taste best cooked, because cooking mellows any harsh flavors.

Although modern orange carrots have been bred for increasingly higher levels of beta carotene (precursor to vitamin A), other colored carrots have health benefits, too. They contain important healthful phytonutrients that can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a number of other chronic illnesses. We've chosen the best of the colorful carrot varieties to describe here.

Passionate Purples

The most visually exciting of these newly available carrot colors is purple. Shades can range from dark violet to reddish purple. The pigment responsible for these beautiful hues is anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant that has shown promise in reducing certain forms of cardiovascular disease and cancer. One of the best purple carrot varieties is 'Dragon'. "This early-maturing (65 days) Kuroda-type carrot has a spicy, sweet flavor that does not get harsh in hot weather," says John Schneeberger of Garden City Seeds in Hamilton, Montana.

The most exciting feature of 'Dragon' is that, when sliced raw, it reveals orange, orange-and-yellow, or pure bright yellow interiors in brilliant contrast to its purple exterior. The only drawback is that this relatively thin purple layer will bleed when cooked, although the interior orange and yellow pigments are stable.

Mellow Yellows

Yellow carrots have long been valued in Europe as a winter storage vegetable and are now becoming available in North America as well. The color comes from a group of pigments known as xanthophylls, several of which are phytonutrients containing health-promoting properties. 'Sweet Sunshine', a blunt Chantenay type, matures in 72 days and grows well in heavy or shallow soils. They are nice and crisp, and sweeter than many of the standard orange varieties even in the summer."

'Lubiana' is another exceptional yellow variety. This cone-shaped Danvers-type matures in 75 days and features vigorous tall tops that shade out the weeds after only one early cultivation. Although a bit dry and almost starchy-tasting when first pulled from the ground, 'Lubiana' sweetens with age and stores well. It actually tastes best after a couple of months in winter storage, during which the carbohydrates turn into sugars.

True Reds

Red carrots are still used in parts of Asia and now have converts in North America. As part of a traditional New Year's dish in Japan, they are served cooked and sliced with other root vegetables. In India they are frequently cooked in clarified butter (ghee), to bring out their beautiful deep ruby red color. The pigment responsible for this color is the phytonutrient lycopene, the same pigment found in tomatoes and watermelons. When consumed on a regular basis, this phytonutrient has been shown to lower the risk of prostate cancer.

Red carrots look and taste best cooked, offering a rich, earthy, almost zesty flavor. The only red variety currently available is 'Nutri-Red', an Imperator type that matures in 80 days. "It's best harvested when the roots are the diameter of your index finger and 4 to 5 inches long," says Joel Reiten, plant breeder with Territorial Seeds of Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Wonderful Whites

White is a unique color for carrots and, to the untrained eye, the roots can be easily confused with parsnips or daikon. The white color is due to an absence of pigments; hence, these carrots don't contain the phytonutrients associated with pigments. Although best known as a fodder crop in Europe, white carrots have a small but loyal following in France and Belgium, where they are used in soups and stews. Unlike other carrots, they have tall "shoulders" that grow as much as 3 to 4 inches out of the ground and turn green with chlorophyll. But according to David Cohlmeyer of Cookstown Greens, an organic farm near Toronto, Ontario, the green shoulders are safe to eat and the flesh underneath is sweet and delicious. Cohlmeyer, who has grown many colorful carrots for top chefs in Toronto, likes 'Belgian White', a long-season Flakkee type that matures in 90 days. "When cooked, they have a very aromatic, quintessential carrot flavor and a soft texture, much like celeriac."

Growing Colorful Carrots

All of these uniquely colored carrots thrive under the same conditions that produce good orange types. Carrots grow best in amended, well-drained, sandy loam soil formed into raised beds and kept well watered. In many parts of the country, you can be planting seeds now. While some older purple and red varieties may flower prematurely if planted too early in the spring, the ones we've listed here do not bolt under normal conditions. Although it is possible to store purple, red, and white types for a couple of months under ideal conditions, they don't usually store as well as most orange and yellow varieties, so use them first after harvest.

When Scarlet Isn't Red

While many older carrots have the words red or scarlet in their names, such as the popular 'Red Cored Chantenay' and 'Scarlet Nantes', they should not be confused with the true red carrots that contain lycopene. Instead, these are common orange varieties from the early part of this century that had descriptive terms added to their names. At the time, "red" denoted a darker orange color.

John Navazio is a vegetable breeder in Washington.

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