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The carrot, one of the most popular vegetables in North America, is a root vegetable. Carrots are versatile, enjoyed both raw and cooked, and essential to kitchens all over the world. There is barely a cuisine that does not rely on their sweet, earthy presence in stocks, soups, stews, salads, stir-fries, and sauces.

Most of us recognize the ordinary long, cylindrical, tapered orange carrot, the Imperator variety, which is seen at every supermarket and corner grocery. However, small, globe-shaped carrots like Planet and Thumbelina, and the more cone-shaped Chantenay types can also be found. Chantenay carrots are commonly diced for use in canned or prepared foods. There are also many varieties of Nantes carrots - a medium sized French variety that are uniformly cylindrical, and are often sweeter than other carrots.

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Carrots keep better with the tops removed, as the greens will drain the carrots of moisture, making them limp and dry. However, soaking them in an ice water bath for about 30 minutes returns some of their crispness, as their cells regain some of the lost water. Store carrots loosely wrapped in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Tiny new carrots should be used in a day or two, but larger ones will keep well for at least a week. Carrots can be peeled ahead of use, wrapped in a damp towel, and refrigerated overnight. If they are not wrapped, they will oxidize and turn dark. Carrots should not be stored near apples, pears or other ethylene gas producing produce, as this gas will cause the carrots to develop a bitter flavour.

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Origins and Culture

While we think of the carrot as a distinctively orange-hued vegetable, the original carrots (including some wild and heirloom varieties today) were white, yellow, pink, black or purple. Believed to have originated in Afghanistan, and originally cultivated for medicinal uses, carrots moved gradually westward over the centuries, eventually ending up in 12th century Spain. It is believed that the purple carrot was being cultivated in Italy and other corners of Europe in the 14th century. The orange version, so familiar to us now, didn't come on the scene until the 1700s. The orange carrot was developed by the Dutch, motivated out of patriotism for the ruling House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence.

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Nutritional and Medicinal Properties

Carrots are loaded with the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene. In the body, beta carotene is converted to vitamin A, a nutrient essential for healthy vision, immune function and cell growth. It also acts as an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals.

Carrots are also a good source of Vitamin C, fibre, and potassium.

So..are carrots really good for your eyes?

Eating carrots won't improve eyesight for those of us eating a normal, healthy diet. However, in the developing world, Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of blindness. In North America, Vitamin A deficiencies are extremely rare. So, it's unlikely that eating carrots will give you special night-vision powers, but they are one of nature's candies.

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Basic Cooking Instructions

Though many vegetables are most nutritious when eaten raw, there are exceptions, and carrots are one. They are delicious raw whole, cut into sticks, or grated into salads. However, light steaming (5-10 minutes) will also retain most of the nutrients but be careful not to overcook them! Fresh carrot greens can be chopped into a salad or stir-fry, giving your meal an added boost of Vitamin K. Or, why not dry the greens, and use them as an herb, like parsley. Most children enjoy carrots, but for those with picky eaters, carrots can be pureed then blended into many dishes, such as tomato sauce.

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