By Jennifer Burns Bright

As a child, I hated carrots. The combination of earthy and bitter, so strong and dirty, I could never seem to swallow; carrots were the vegetable of my nightmares. And cooked carrots? Even worse. Either undercooked or overcooked, mushy or crunchy, slimy, or too sweet, quelle horreur! I would pass on anything carrot. Even as an adult, I found I was pretty much able to ignore the frightening orange batons. I’d even leave out the carrot in mirepoix, substituting it with similar parsnips. If I had the ill fortune to end up with a bag of wizened, mildewing, grotesquely rooting ones in the fridge, I’d gladly feed them to a nearby horse or exultant rabbit. Ain’t no carrot that will take me alive!

So imagine my surprise when, one day a few years ago in spring, I had a craving for a glass of carrot juice. I felt almost as if I needed a disguise when I furtively placed my bottle of juice on the counter at Red Barn Natural Grocery. And oh, what a rush! Trumpeting its beta-carotene at me, it went down vibrant, a soft, milky, almost silky elixir. And then the carrot sirens started singing their seductive song in my ear. I was hooked.

Soon, I would do anything to get my fix. I fell madly in love with Party Downtown’s variations on carrots: one carrot dish always presented in three ways. They char-roast small, tender carrots, nestle them in a carrot puree, and sprinkle the top with pickled carrots finely diced. Perfection.

My own repertoire was obstinately low on carrot recipes, of course. The owner of the former Pomegranates market in Eugene, Julie Lenox-Sharifi, had shared her own recipe for a carrot spread with me many years ago, but her neatly printed index card had languished in my recipe file. One day, I pulled it out and started experimenting, and voilà! This delicious roasted orange spread became one of my favorites. Perfect for a bleak spring morning in Oregon, one mouthful transports the taster to a sunny Mediterranean plaza, brilliant and refined.

It’s a crowd-pleaser, too. Bright and spunky carrots give their best show here, their natural sweetness counteracted by the lemon and chile in the harissa, pureed smooth, and supple with the olive oil base. Although I most often serve it as an appetizer with crackers, presented with a little olive oil and za’atar sprinkled on top, or thinned with more olive oil as a dip for spring vegetables, it is perfect as a vegan alternative to cream cheese with bagels at brunch. And any leftovers can be folded into soups, tossed with hot pasta, or used in a stuffing for vegetables or chicken.

For the seasoning, you really need to have a good harissa. No other spicy concoction will do. Julie turned me on to Mustapha’s Moroccan Harissa, which is special even within this glorious family of red pepper pastes because it is bursting with the tart flavor of preserved lemons. If you can’t source Mustapha’s in town, just substitute half-chopped preserved lemons. If that’s also beyond your reach, substitute half a lemon’s worth of juice plus its zest.

Roasting the carrots has the magical effect of caramelizing bits of this sweet root and deepening the flavor, so don’t attempt to steam (or, egads, boil) them. I have used all kinds of carrots for this spread, even half a bag of leftover grocery store carrots. It is all the more brilliant with fresh garden carrots, especially the varieties good for roasting, like “Nantes” or my favorite, the deep scarlet “Atomic Red.” Overachievers can even buy multicolored carrots, separate them in the roasting pan, and layer the puree in pretty hues.

Moroccan Carrot Purée with Harissa

  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut in 1-inch slices
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling on carrots before roasting
  • 1 tablespoon Mustapha’s Moroccan Harissa (or substitute 1/2 tablespoon harissa plus 1/2 tablespoon chopped, preserved lemons)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place carrots and garlic in one layer in a baking dish, and drizzle with some olive oil. Roast until you see some dark brown spots, about 30 minutes depending on the water content in the carrots.

Let the carrots cool to warm, then process them with harissa, cumin, salt, and pepper in a food processor. Pour in 1/3 cup of olive oil as you process. Adjust seasonings. Serve at room temperature on crackers. Yields about 2 cups.