Thursday, August 28, 2014

Warm and Fragrant and Sad Carrot Salad

I wish I could write something cheering and funny. I want to model a nice, brisk end-of-summer attitude for the kids, for you. But I am just boringly, wiltingly sad. I don’t have anything interesting to say about it. Just the dial-toney hum of missing Ben, who started high school, of counting the minutes until Birdy starts sixth grade. There is a big gangly-necked blue-jay baby at the feeder outside my office window, and his mom is coaching him about how to eat, and he is moving his beak in an awkward caricature of chewing, seeds falling out all over the place while he cocks his fluffy, baffled head.

Craney will never leave us! 
Ben is making his own school lunch. He spends a lot of time with his friends, whom I adore. I cannot always guess what he is thinking. The kids leave us in increments, I’m starting to understand. It’s all right and good and perfect. We are so lucky! And I could just cry. I will.
I've got to start growing again.
Still, there is the consolation of being invited to dinner, which is, I think I’ve mentioned, one of my greatest pleasures—and one of my greatest skills, the getting us invited. Stop me if I’ve told you this before, but this carrot salad? It’s the same one from the famous carrot-salad-in-the-car story. The one that goes: one time Catherine's family was invited to their friends Lee and Meredith’s house to do some cross-country skiing. And when Meredith later invited them to stay for dinner, Catherine said, “Oh, we’d love to! I actually happen to have a carrot salad in the car. Which I brought, you know, just in case.” Our friends like to remind me of this story at least every time we see them, which is, thank God, a lot. (If not quite enough.)

Last night we were actually invited to dinner ahead of time (yay!) and I made this. If you’re getting lots of sweet, delicious carrots from your garden or farm share, this is a lovely change of pace from the usual rawness and crunch. 
Another of my carrot-season favorites: escabeche, with jalapenos and onions, which makes me feel like I'm back at Tacos Vallarta in Santa Cruz, gorging on carnitas loaded down with pickled carrots. I  can as much as I can can. Some jars are called ahead of time.
The carrots in the salad are tender but, thanks to the vinegar, still firm. The seasoning is bright and unexpected, herby and fresh and mellow all at once. Good hot or cold. Delicious. Even though Ben did not, I notice, choose to pack the leftovers in his lunchbox. (WTF?)
Gardening is not my area of expertise. I had to pick the mint from underneath the sprawling tomatoes and volunteer grape vine.
Warm and Fragrant Carrot Salad
Serves 8

This is my expanded riff on “Carrots, Roman Style” from the lovely Deborah Madison book The Savory Way. Above the recipe I have written “simple + yummy,” but then, weirdly, I have made about a million notes. Don’t be dismayed by the long cooking; this happens largely unattended. You can used a teaspoon of dried mint if that’s all you’ve got; also, ground cumin is fine, but use a bit less.

1 ½ pounds nice, fresh, sweet carrots, scrubbed
¼ cup olive oil
1 heaping tablespoon (or more) chopped fresh mint
1 heaping tablespoon (or more) chopped celery leaves (or, if you’ve got it, lovage—but less of it)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 smashed and peeled garlic cloves
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
3 cups water
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar (and more, for later)
Black pepper
More herbs for garnish

Cut the carrots into 2-inch lengths, and then cut these into quarters, sixths, or eights, so that they are all nice and even(ish). (I don't see why you couldn't slice them into the usual coins, unless you are obedient like me.)

In a Dutch oven over low heat, warm the oil and add the herbs, cumin, and garlic, and cook just until you can really smell them. Add the carrots and toss them with the oil and aromatics, then add the salt, water, and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 40 minutes. Deborah says, “By this time the liquid should have reduced to almost nothing, leaving the carrots nicely glazed. If the pan becomes dry before the carrots are done, add more water in ¼- or ½-cup increments until they are sufficiently tender.”

Grind on some pepper, then taste for seasoning, adding more salt or a splash more of vinegar until the carrots taste very bright and delicious. Serve with a scattering of more herbs. 


  1. I'm sorry, but what? Ben cannot be in high school. I'm so sorry you're blue. That is hard. And impossible. Thank you for sending us this witty, delicious post from your place of sadness. Also, if we're voting, I think if you have mint, tomatoes and grape vines (volunteer or otherwise), you can go ahead and call yourself an expert.

  2. Anonymous2:46 PM

    I have a ninth-grader and a sixth-grader this year, too. And I could and will cry, too.


  3. Anonymous2:52 PM

    My Ben is going to high school too this year, and my younger son is starting middle school. I have been following you since the Baby Center days....where did the years actually go to? Are they hidden in an odd time warp somewhere? Will we get them back someday?

    Oh - and I totally get the growth thing - my Ben just had his check up and is now officially SIX FEET TWO INCHES!!!!! Even if I had a middle age growth spurt, I would still be looking up at him!


  4. High school!? Already?! I could cry FOR you. I'm crying in advance for myself and when my Ben is a freshman a few years from now. I've also been following you since the BabyCenter days, and wonder how this wonderful, bittersweet thing happened to us so quickly. Sending e-hugs and tearful laughs.

  5. dale in denver6:19 PM

    WTF, Ben?

    I loved that little aside.

  6. Oh, the high school. And on the growth chart, mine was nearing. . .and then passed me up this summer. He's had the nerve to keep on growing too, with the strange bonus of me getting his hand-me-down t-shirts that are suddenly too small (major score on the special St. Patrick's Day one from the sushi restaurant we love!) And the 6th grader. Last year of elementary. For the first time, I'm sharing your end of summer sad, a bit.

    I think I'll go make a carrot salad, and wash it down with gin.

  7. Dear Catherine,

    I felt like I was hit in the gut when I read that Ben was entering High School. I've been reading you since the BC days as well. I remember a passage in your book when Ben had given up naps and you wrote, "even for David, that's a whole lotta Ben." :D

    Seeing all their pictures and reading about your two wonderful children. Another moment popped in to my head when you were camping, walking with Birdy and she said "How many times have we walked this path, Mom" Oh...

    I feel for you... I do. My dear Zoe started 7th, my Livy-bug started 3rd and my baby Lauren started Kindergarten. ("I was there a long time, Mom!" was her comment when she got off the bus. The bus!)

    So dear Catherine... please know that I think you are a wonderful Mama - you've pushed me to be a better Mom. I enjoy your writing so much and all your recommendations. Thank you for sharing such a special part of yourself with us.

    With love and hugs

  8. Oh, I know how you feel. My daughter is starting 8th grade this year. What? 8th grade? I don't see how that's possible.

    I started reading you over at BC too when mine was all of 15 months old. I could cry too.

    One question about the carrot salad, my husband dislikes cooked carrots because of their sweetness. Does the other spicing mitigate the sweetness at all? (I can, of course, always eat the entire salad myself if it's too sweet for him!)

    1. I feel like it really does, Amy. I don't really like cooked carrots either, but I love this. Maybe because of the spicing, like you say, and because of the vinegar. xo

    2. And you were right! My skeptical husband actually liked AND ate these carrots! :)

  9. Me too, with the, Ben, high school? no. way. This morning my husband said that for 15 years he's been trying to help me feel more hopeful and joyous about the summer/fall/school transition (even from before my kid was born when I was a teacher), and I've finally managed to pull him down to my glum ways. So that made me even more low. I just wish school would go ahead and start already so I can move into my also well-established "fall!" phase. Sigh.


  10. Your sweet comments are so cheering to me. Thank you. xo

    1. I don't even have words for the way I feel about having a 7th and 5th grader. Just this awful lump in my throat that I can't seem to swallow, and an empty feeling in my stomach that even a delicious looking carrot salad won't be able to assuage. You are not alone.

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  14. I'm just catching up after a month away from blog reading, and I can only echo cries of "Ben in high school!" I know it makes sense...but it doesn't. And then I pause and realize I've been reading your writing for close to a decade. (And I thank you for continuing to write.)

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