In the middle of winter, nothing tastes better than garden carrots. I learned this long ago when I lived in the small town of Genval in Belgium.
After spending my first seven years in a large chateau with a huge backyard, this new light pink brick house one town over seemed like a cozy home. We had a deep and narrow backyard, separated from the neighbours by a chain link fence. And though we had a sprawling strawberry patch on one side, a large bed of roses out front and a hazelnut bush and chestnut tree out back, we didn’t grow much of anything else. But next door, Mr. Vanderbeek had a huge garden.
René and Rose Vanderbeek replaced the grandparents I had left in the U.S. They were an older retired couple who lived a well ordered life. Since my family did not have a TV, the Vanderbeeks would let me climb over the stone wall to come watch the children’s programming on Wednesday afternoons when school let out. They also took care of our dog who searched them out for a peaceful getaway. Madame would feed me her fresh galettes and serve them with a glass of dark currant juice, while Monsieur would sit in the corner and smoke and listen to the radio perched on a tall shelf.
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But Monsieur’s pride and joy was his garden. Just like our backyard, his plot was deep and narrow. From mid-February to the end of November, he would be working at planting, weeding, mulching and watering. I can still see him, with his beret perched sideways, pushing his wheelbarrow down the middle of his garden. Down on his hands and knees, a hoe or spade always at his side, he took care of that garden out of love. I loved seeing the neat rows. As sprouts poked through the ground in the spring, I looked for the different shades of green announcing each vegetable.
It was quite a big garden. And since Monsieur and Madame had no children, they always had extra. Over the fence, we received potatoes, leeks, onions, peas and, yes, carrots. Every now and then, René would go out and dig up a bunch and offer it to my mother. Most often, these vegetables ended up in a typical Belgian vegetable soup. But those carrots, raw, were some of the best I have ever had. Kept stored in the ground, they still had a great crunch but also an added sweetness.
These days, I get my carrots from Dale and Jo at the Goshen Farmer’s market. I like to eat them raw, but in the winter they often show up on my menu as Flemish carrots, my way of combining the best of both of my cultures. Here is the recipe if you want to try it.
- 4 to 5 carrots, thinly sliced (I don’t peel them when I get them from Dale)
- 1/2 medium onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Water to cover
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in a 1/4 cup of water
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add onions and fry until softened, about five minutes. Add carrots and stir to coat with butter. Add thyme, salt and pepper and just enough water to barely cover them. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, only until the carrots are tender.
- With the burner still on, slowly stir in the cornstarch mixture and keep stirring until the sauce thickens slightly. Serve immediately, with a little chopped parsley sprinkled on top.