In its most basic form, a grated carrot salad is nothing more than grated (or julienned) carrots dressed in a simple vinaigrette. I like it best if the vinaigrette is a lemony one...but a red wine vinaigrette will work fine too. The vinaigrette should be on the tangy side. It should not be overly sweet. The sweetness in this salad should come primarily from the carrots themselves...not an abundance of added sugar or honey. It is fine to correct carrots that are not as naturally sweet as you would like with a pinch of sugar or a drizzle of honey. But the overall effect of the salad should be lively, tangy and zippy.
Other additions to this basic salad are minimal and vary from cook to cook. When starting out without a vinaigrette (just dressing the carrots directly with lemon juice or red wine vinegar and olive oil) it is usual to include garlic or shallot. Some cooks add a bit of Dijon mustard. Freshly toasted and ground spices like coriander, cumin and fennel are also common. And the salad is almost always finished with fresh herbs...flat leaf parsley, cilantro, tarragon, chervil or chives. Every recipe I have ever seen or made includes a bit of cayenne or hot pepper flakes. David Tanis makes a fantastic Moroccan version that is finished with lime and a scattering of green olives.
When I make a grated carrot salad I add a couple of steps that I think improve its taste, texture and shelf life. The first is something you won't have to worry about if you are making your salad with a vinaigrette you already have on hand, and that is to allow the minced/smashed garlic and/or minced shallots to macerate briefly in the lemon juice or vinegar before adding them to the carrots. This brief soak is how I always begin when I make a vinaigrette and its purpose is to soften the harshness of these two ingredients. Not only will the flavor of garlic or shallot be stronger and harsher if you don't do this, their presence will become more and more prominent as the salad sits...making for a salad that tastes overwhelmingly of garlic or shallot on subsequent days. Since one of the things I like about grated carrot salad is the fact that it keeps really well for several days, it would be a shame if it became inedible because the garlic or shallot had become too strong.
The second thing I do is something I picked up in David Tanis's Moroccan version. Instead of making a vinaigrette and pouring it over the carrots...or simply throwing all the ingredients into a bowl and combining them, Tanis adds the ingredients in stages, adding the olive oil last. The reason for this is that if allowed to sit on the carrots for a short length of time, the salt and the acidity of the lemon or vinegar will begin to soften the carrots by drawing out some of their liquid. If you wait to add the oil until after the carrots have started to soften, you will use less oil and you won't end up with a pile of grated carrots sitting in a pool of oil. The other benefit of waiting to add the oil is that the seasonings will be absorbed by the carrots better if there is no oil coating them and acting as a barrier.
Obviously recipes for Carottes Râpées are easy to find...and I do hope you will look for one to try. The one I am sharing today would be a good place to start. It is from Jody Williams' book Buvette and it is a bit unusual. Like the basic versions I have described, it is simple and streamlined. But, it contains the surprise of chopped, toasted pistachios. The pistachios add color... subtle crunch... and sweetness. They are, I think, a genius touch...and make this salad my new favorite version of the grated carrot salad.
Grated Carrot Salad with Coriander & Pistachios
2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice...or more, to taste
1 small clove garlic, grated with a microplaner or smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1 lb. carrots, trimmed and peeled
1/2 t. kosher salt, plus more to taste as needed
1 t. coriander seeds, toasted and crushed in a mortar and pestle
pinch cayenne, or to taste
1/4 c. pistachios, toasted and coarsely chopped
3 to 4 T. cilantro chiffonade
about 3 T. olive oil
Place the lemon juice in a small bowl and add the garlic. Stir to distribute the garlic and set aside. (This is an important step, whether you are using garlic...or making another carrot salad with minced shallot. Allowing the smashed/minced garlic—or shallot—to macerate for a bit in the acid will soften its harshness considerably.)
Coarsely grate the carrots using the large holes of a box grater or the grating disc of your food processer (see note). Put the carrots in a large bowl, sprinkle with the salt, and toss. Add the coriander and cayenne and toss. Pour the lemon-garlic mixture over all. Toss well and let soften a bit (20 to 30 minutes).
Add enough olive oil to coat and fold in the pistachios and cilantro. Taste and adjust the seasoning with lemon juice, salt, black pepper and cayenne. If the carrots are not as sweet as you would like, add a pinch of sugar or drizzle of honey. Cover and set aside at cool room temperature for up to several hours, or refrigerate and then return to room temperature to serve. The salad keeps, well covered and in the refrigerator for several days.
(Recipe adapted from Buvette, by Jody Williams)
Note: I recently read an article in the premier issue of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street that explained how grating actually enhances the sweetness of the carrots. Since grating ruptures more of the carrot's cells, more natural sugars are released into the salad. You will find French Carrot Salads that feature julienned carrots...and these are delicious too...but if you want to enhance the sweetness of the carrot, grating is the way to go. Just make sure you grate them coarsely or you will have soggy carrot pulp instead of nice strands of crisp carrot.