Colin Ambrose has had carrots on the brain ever since last year when the chef-owner at Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor raised a scrawny crop that left him dejected.
“I went through a lot of effort to put these carrots in play,” he says. He double dug the soil to create an airy home for the roots; he tweaked his compost to bump up acidity levels, and he dreamed up November menu items to feature these precious vegs. All for naught. “They really weren’t what I wanted them to be.”
So, last week, in a form of backyard crowd-sourcing, Ambrose convened five farmers, five chefs and some neutral observers to collectively commiserate on carrot culture, share cooking and growing tips, and construct no less than 10 carrot-containing creations. The event, which some dubbed “Carrotpalooza,” was just in time for prime carrot season: see above for carrot-focused Thanksgiving table inspiration curated by our friends at the FeedFeed.
Ambrose’s idea was to follow carrots from seed to plate to become better at growing and cooking them; this was done in the same spirit as the historic Seeds Summit that brought the world’s top chefs and cutting-edge seed breeders to Stone Barns earlier this year. Ambrose distributed seed to all the growers in late August, and all were was planted shortly after. “Hopefully we will have a cold snap in early November [which will concentrate the flavors of the crop] and the stage will be set,” Ambrose wrote in an e-mail to all the participants just after Labor Day. Each grower got a “control” variety — Scarlet Nantes — and also planted a variety of their own choosing. The names — White Satin, Purple Haze, Bolero — were more fitting for cannabis dispensary tasting rooms than seed catalogues.
Ambrose paired each farmer with a chef; the pairs were then charged with harvesting the crop and bringing the results — raw, steamed and in one dish of their choosing — to the tasting at Estia’s. The resulting dishes were just as diverse. Dennis MacNeil, the chef at Provisions Natural Food Store, where the addition of farmer Steve Eaton to management has boosted the local produce on the store’s shelves and in their cafeteria items, used purple carrots in a chicken soup. (“It was fantastic except it turned the soup purple.”) Christopher Polidoro, Matt Lauer’s private chef turned out carrot gyoza. Chef Joe Realmuto and Bryan Futerman of Nick & Toni’s made steamed heirloom carrots with harissa. Andrew Smith of Bay Burger diverged from his usual menu items to make a carrot panna cotta topped with carrot reduction.
Cassandra Shupp, the pastry chef from Topping Rose House, who arrived with mini carrot cakes, said she uses carrots in a lot of desserts. Todd Jacobs of Fresh used Dale and Bette’s “fresh mix” of carrots to make carrot croquettes with in a mayo, yuzu and jalapeno dipping sauce. Colin Ambrose riffed on the feud between Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor with a shepherd’s pie that included rabbit and carrots. Jason Weiner of Almond made a spicy Moroccan carrot salad. (The East Hampton Star’s report on the tasting includeds the recipe for carrot gyoza.)
The deep carrot dive, documented with video interviews, was educational for all in attendance. Marilee Foster arrived with some impressively long and uniform carrots, which she attributed to the mounted up soil she grew them in, now her default for carrot planting. Several groers talked about the need to keep carrots well-watered after planting because they take weeks to germinate. Everyone agreed that thinning carrots was a necessity, lest your crop turn out small and squiggly. Some chefs say the culls made perfect skinny carrots for salads and crudite plates. And everyone voted carrots an essential winter staple for East End kitchens. (The vegetable, that is, not to be confused with the new Carrot app, a lark that challenges our notions of useful technology.)
Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm, author of the recent book Seed Time, said in early history carrots came in pale tones of yellow and peach. Uniformly orange carrots are a modern creation, he added. “Carrots are an example of how all crops now have color diversity.” Chaskey said the tasting reminded him that heritage breeds aren’t always the ones he likes best. He favors Bolero, a hybrid variety, that grows twice as big and “tastes better” than the more traditional Nantes.
Ambrose, who moderated the afternoon gathering from behind the bar, was noticeably enthralled throughout. “It’s like a dream come true to have this group in the restaurant,” he said. The tasting was his way to further the garden-to-table vision he’s had since his first restaurant in Amagansett where, long before the term locavore had been invented, he raised vegetables on a couple of acres just off Main Street owned by producer Lorne Michaels. (“I probably spent a million on eggs before Estia’s closed,” Alec Baldwin has bragged; Estia’s Big Al’s Burrito, made with vegetables, a veggie burger, egg whites and jack cheese is named after the proud egg-eater.)
We know potatoes have a long and well-rooted (pun) history on the East End. But root vegetables, in general, do well here. The lengthy, warm falls mean they can stay in the ground well into the winter, providing a soil-bound pantry for soups, slaws and dishes. In fact, the long-sighted Ambrose sees this tasting as the start of a four-year East End Roots series that will feature beets next year, garlic in 2016, and then a round-robin of turnips, parsnips and potatoes in 2017.
For next year’s tasting, Ambrose plans comparative soil samples, side-by-side photographing, and more data around the crop itself (weight harvested, sugar levels). And there will surely be more people in the room. “I’m hearing from the folks who didn’t come, and they are all bummed.”