University of North Texas’ carrot gnocchi takes local procurement to the next level

Locally Sourced: Carrots sourced from the school’s hydroponic freight farm are utilized three different ways in the dish.
Carrot Gnocchi
Mean Greens Cafe's carrot gnocchi uses carrots grown inside UNT's freight farm. | Photos courtesy of Ahna Hubnik

Locally Sourced

Just behind the University of North Texas’ Mean Greens Cafe lies a large hydroponic freight farm that is able to provide hundreds of produce for the school’s five dining halls. 

When Mean Green Acres first opened its doors in 2016, the team mostly stuck with growing different varieties of leafy greens and herbs. Recently, however, they’ve been experimenting with what else they could grow.

One of the newest additions to the farm has been carrots. Executive Chef Cris Williams was able to transform the ingredient into a carrot gnocchi that was added to the menu at Mean Greens Cafe, the school’s 100% vegan dining hall, this semester. 

“We make a couple different gnocchi here, like a sweet potato gnocchi and a traditional potato gnocchi, and I just thought it would be kind of fun to do the same thing with carrots,” says Williams. 

Lettuce growing inside Mean Green Acres

Lettuce growing inside Mean Green Acres. 

Utilizing the whole carrot 

Carrot fans will rejoice upon learning that the vegetable is incorporated into every aspect of the dish, including its two sauces— a carrot carbonara and a carrot top pesto. 

The gnocchi dough is formed by first peeling the carrots and turning them into a puree. The puree is then transformed into a dough by mixing it with almond flour, plant-based ricotta and a couple of other ingredients. After the dough is cut into the classic gnocchi shape, it is par-cooked and then pan fried. 

The carbonara sauce is made using coconut milk and, you guessed it, carrots, which act as a substitute for the guanciale (a type of cured pork) that is traditionally included in the dish. 

“We make a seasoning that goes with [the carrots] and kind of mimics the flavors of bacon,” says Williams. 

For the pesto, the carrot tops are mixed with cashews and two different types of basil also grown at Mean Green Acres. 

Along with creating a complex sauce, using the carrot tops in the pesto also fits in line with the dining team’s goal to minimize food waste. 

“Sustainability is a big thing that's on our radar,” says Executive Chef of Residential Dining Matt Ward. “That's really one of those things that we really try to drill down in our dining halls.” 

Atlas Carrots

Atlas Carrots are used to make the carrot gnocchi. 

From seed to plant 

The type of carrots grown in the farm are called Atlas Carrots, which were chosen specifically for their round shape that lends itself well to growing hydroponically.   

Like everything else grown at Mean Green Acres, the carrots begin their life in the nursery where they start out as substrate seed pods made out of peat moss. 

“All these pods sit in the tray and water from the tank pumps up into these troughs and saturates that substrate and that allows the seed to germinate without getting oversaturated,” says Mean Green Acres Farmer Erin Clarner. 

The carrots spend their first two to three weeks in the nursery. From there, they’re then moved to the hydroponic towers where they finish growing and are harvested. In total, it takes around two months for the carrots to be grown and harvested. 

“[Since] they’re getting all their essential nutrients directly and they're in a controlled environment, they're gonna grow about 50% faster than compared to conventional farming,” says Clarner. 

Each week, Clarner sends the UNT chefs a list with photos of what produce is available. The chefs select what ingredients they want and then the produce makes its short journey to the kitchens. 

Mean Greens Cafe follows a three week menu cycle, so the carrot gnocchi is served to hungry diners once every three weeks.

Just like everything else on Mean Green’s menu, the dish has been met favorably by students, says Williams, whether they follow a plant-based diet or not. 

“We probably only have like a 2% to 5% vegan population that actually eats here,” he says. “People just eat here because it's good.”

Do you have a dish that uses local ingredients on your menu that you would like to see featured in Locally Sourced? Please send an email to Benita Gingerella at bgingerella@winsightmedia.com  



More from our partners