No, it's not true that eating large amounts of carrots will help you see better in the dark. The claim was a good cover up for the use of new radar technology in World War II, though. When the British pilot John Cunningham (aka "Cat's Eyes") shot down German planes at night, they attributed his ability to eating lots of carrots.
Delicious and nutritious nonetheless—and yes, good for general eye health—carrots are a versatile veggie, enjoyed in both sweet and savory dishes around the world.
While the roots of early carrots were too bitter and fibrous to eat as a vegetable, the ancient Greeks and Romans used them for medicinal purposes. In fact, eating carrots as a vegetable didn't become popular in Europe until the Renaissance. We have the Dutch to thank for developing a tasty orange variety in the 16th century; previously most edible carrots were yellow. In the early 1800s, the carrot earned the distinction of becoming the first canned vegetable.
The largest commercial carrot producers today are China, Russia and the United States. In the U.S., California and Oregon produce the most carrots for fresh use; Holtsville, California, calls itself "Carrot Capital of the World." Most carrots grown for processing come from Michigan and Wisconsin.
While eating carrots won't improve your night vision, the root vegetable is a great source of beta-carotene, the red-orange pigment that the body turns into vitamin A, good for (among other things) eye health. For the highest beta-carotene content, choose carrots with the most saturated red-orange color and cook them, as cooking releases more of the beta-carotene (it makes them sweeter to boot).
Despite being 88 percent water, carrots are also a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, dietary fiber and potassium. And they're high in antioxidants.
By the way, it is true that eating massive amounts of carrots can cause a person's skin to turn yellowish orange, especially on the palms or soles. It's easily reversed by cutting carrot consumption—no harm done.
Named botanically for their umbrella-like flower clusters, carrots are members of the Umbelliferae family, along with parsnips, parsley and dill. There are over 100 varieties of carrots, in different sizes and shades of white, yellow, orange, red and purple. Common varieties include small, round carrots like Orbit and Thumbelina, as well as longer, tapered carrots like Danvers, Chantenay, Imperator and Nantes.
Baby (or cocktail) carrots aren't a specific variety but an invention of a California carrot grower seeking to avoid waste. Rather than discard otherwise unusable carrots, he cut them down into a small, cylindrical shape, very handy for snacking. Today, carrots are often produced specifically for use as cocktail carrots; they tend to be sweet, tender varieties such as Minicor, Baby Spike and Little Finger.
Let's start with the raw carrot—whole, julienned, grated, sliced or chopped. It’s a classic, crunchy crudite and wildly popular in healthful juiced drinks. Grate fresh, bright carrots to add a splash of vibrant color to leafy salads and slaws. Or make them the center of attention, as in these Indian Spiced Carrots, in which the cool, raw vegetable is warmly spiced. Toss shredded carrots with lively red radishes, pumpkin seeds, peanuts and feta in a tangy lemon dressing for a crunchy Moroccan Carrot Radish Salad. In this sweet/savory Sesame-Honey Tempeh & Quinoa Bowl, a carrot slaw makes a delightful bed for sweetly sautéed tempeh.
Carrots aren't always crunchy, of course. In fact, they make top-notch comfort food. Try this Creamy Carrot and Coconut Milk Soup with Thai Red Curry the next time you want to curl up with a warm soup mug in hand.
Cooked carrots—baked, steamed, roasted, grilled or fried—are generally sweeter than raw, and they serve perfectly as both main and side dishes. Celebrate carrots with a Savory Carrot & Tarragon Tart, or make a bright side of sliced, steamed carrot coins topped with a pat of rich honey butter. Carrots are delicious with fruits such as apples, raisins and dates, as well as other vegetables, like sweet potatoes and onions. Partner Roasted Pears and Carrots with balsamic vinegar and olive oil for a savory/sweet side. This recipe for Carrot and Sweet Potato Tzimmes melds the flavors of an array of fruits and vegetables sweetened with honey.
Baked carrot desserts highlight the sweetness of the vegetable. Invite your favorite little helper to the kitchen to make these Carrot Cookies, decorated with a cream cheese frosting.
Carrot greens have a fresh, slightly bitter taste. Use them as a garnish like parsley, or toss them in a salad. They can even be used to make pesto. If you find the greens too bitter, sauté them in a little olive oil to soften the flavor.
Carrots are a hard, cold-season biennial, available year-round from California but at their peak in most places in late summer and fall.
When selecting carrots, look for roots that are firm, bright, relatively straight and smooth. Avoid limp carrots and those that have black spots or are excessively cracked. Larger carrots are usually sweeter. That's because the sugars are concentrated in the core, which is larger in bigger carrots.
Intact green tops should be feathery and bright, ideally not wilted. If the tops aren't attached, check the stem end; it should not be dark or rubbery (signs of age). If you buy carrots with the green tops attached, remove the greens before storing and use them or discard them. Left intact, they'll draw moisture from the carrots.
Store carrots in a plastic or vegetable storage bag or wrapped in a paper towel in the coolest part of the refrigerator for up to two weeks. For quick, healthful snacking, place trimmed, cut carrot sticks upright in a glass half-full of water in the refrigerator alongside your favorite dip. Keep them away from apples and pears—exposure to the ethylene gas they release as they ripen may cause carrots to become bitter.