Old cookery books commonly advise that vegetables should be cooked for an hour or two, and this can cause a great deal of amusement and not a little disdain on the part of modern readers. I do remember, however, once upon a time a long time ago, in another land, being served carrots which could have benefitted from a couple of hours cooking to soften up the dense fibrous cores!
In fact, vegetables today are different from those of previous times, thanks to horticulturalists for producing more tender varieties, agriculturalists for improved cultivation practices, and technologists for improved storage methods. No longer does an autumn crop of root vegetables have to be stored in cellars and the like to last us throughout winter – and were more likely to survive this time if they were bigger, older, and tougher to start with.
To most of us, whether it is a good thing or not, the only carrots we have access to are small, young, tender, and require little cooking.
“Seasonal” means very little today as it applies to carrots, but Mrs. Beeton, in her Book of Household Management (1861) gives advice about boiling times for big and small carrots.
Ingredients.- To each ½ gallon of water, allow one heaped tablespoonful of salt; carrots.
Mode.—Cut off the green tops, wash and scrape the carrots, and should there be any black specks, remove them. If very large, cut them in halves, divide them lengthwise into four pieces, and put them into boiling water, salted in the above proportion; let them boil until tender, which may be ascertained by thrusting a fork into them: dish, and serve very hot. This vegetable is an indispensable accompaniment to boiled beef. When thus served, it is usually boiled with the beef; a few carrots are placed round the dish as a garnish, and the remainder sent to table in a vegetable-dish. Young carrots do not require nearly so much boiling, nor should they be divided: these make a nice addition to stewed veal, &c.
Time.—Large carrots, 1 ¾ to 2 ¼ hours; young ones, about ½ hour.
Average cost, 6d. to 8d. per bunch of 18.
Sufficient.—4 large carrots for 5 or 6 persons.
Seasonable. — Young carrots from April to July, old ones at any time.
Carrots of course are inherently starchy and sweet, and have never been used exclusively to fill up the soup pot or accompany the beef, but have always been used to make non-savoury dishes too. Carrot jam was common before it had its time in the limelight as a wartime substitute for the preferred fruit version. My favourite mid-nineteenth century source last week has no less than five versions, with differing flavourings:
No. 1.—Boil the carrots soft enough to be eaten, then peel and mash them; weigh equal carrot and sugar (lump) ; make a syrup of the sugar by first boiling it with a little water, put in the carrot and boil until the jam (when cold) will shape and is stiff.
No. 2.—Boil a few fresh carrots quite tender, rub them through a colander, and afterwards through a sieve; then to every pound of pulp add a pound of loaf sugar, and boil it to a jam. When nearly cold add the juice of two lemons and the rind grated very fine. Choose deep-coloured carrots, and use good sugar. When the lemon-juice and rind are well mixed put it into jars and cover with brandied paper.
No. 3.—Pare some good carrots, and to every 10lb. add 1 ½ pints of cold water; cover them close in the preserving-pan, and let them boil till the fruit will mash with a spoon. To every pound of fruit put 3/4 lb. of loaf sugar. Keep the carrots well stirred, to prevent burning; let it boil till it will set firm. To imitate apricot jam, put a few bruised kernels of apricots to flavour.
No. 4.—Take 5 lb. of carrots, clean them, and boil until quite soft, as for dinner. Mash them very fine, rub through a wire-sieve, boil the pulp again with 5 lb. of sugar twenty minutes, add the juice of two lemons whilst boiling. Then take it off the fire, and stir in 1oz. of tartaric acid, and ½ pint of orange wine.
No. 5.—Take a pound of carrots, boil them till quite soft, strain the water from them, mash them to a fine pulp; add ½ lb. sugar and the peel of a candied lemon, and boil together for half an hour.
The Country House, a collection of useful information and recipes, ed. by I.E.B.C. (1866)
And finally, I give you a couple more nineteenth century recipes for carrots, this time from a Scottish cookery book:
Take six ordinary -sized Altringham carrots, scrape well, cut down in small pieces about three inches long, put them in boiling water, and boil for twenty minutes. Have a sauce made with one table-spoonful of fine minced parsley boiled in a tea-cupful of good white stock, one onion peeled and stuck full of cloves, two blades of mace, and one tea-spoonful of sugar; boil all for fifteen minutes, then pick out the onion and the mace, knead a small piece of butter and flour, and add to the stock, shake till it boils, add one table-spoonful of cream, cayenne, and salt to taste. Drain the carrots, and build them up as high as possible in a corner-dish with the point of a fork; then pour the hot sauce over them, and garnish with parsley and beetroot.
Have six good red carrots, cleaned and boiled in water, and a little salt; then lay them in cold water for a few minutes; then grate one dessert-plateful of the outsides, beat up five eggs with a quarter of a pound of sugar; add two table-spoonfuls of marmalade. Mix carrots and all together, put into a buttered shape, and steam it for two hours. Serve with a brandy sauce.
The Practice of Cookery and Pastry by Mrs. I. Williamson (Edinburgh, 1862)