Glorious Garlic

Glorious Garlic

I love garlic. We eat more of it at my house in a month than most people do in a year. I'm not kidding--I grow it in abundance and still have to supplement our habit with five pound bags from the warehouse club. When we get down to the last bulb, panic sets in and we hoard it like OPEC does oil when the price is low.

Those in the know say that garlic not only tastes good but is also good for you. It's been shown to lower cholesterol and has proven antibacterial properties. Some even swear it reduces your risk of cancer. I hope those health claims are true, because if they are, I just might live forever. (If they aren't, just with years of garlic breath.)

Garlic grows in clusters of cloves, called bulbs (think daffodils and tulip) covered by a papery skin. The shape of a garlic bulb mimics a minaret; the cloves that make it up are like half-moons. It's as easy to grow as green onions--just push the cloves down into the soil and in a few weeks, you'll have sprouts poking through. You'll get the best heads of garlic when you plant in fall--usually several weeks before the ground freezes. This allows the roots to get established and then they're ready to support the leaves in spring.

Like any vegetable that grows underground, garlic appreciates a loose soil and little competition from weeds. Plant the cloves about six inches apart, pointy side up, about an inch under the soil, and mulch the bed. Drench it well with a mild solution of fertilizer (I use fish emulsion).

When spring arrives, fertilize at least monthly while the leaves are growing and remove seed heads as they appear to direct the plant's energy into the bulb. When the leaves turn yellow and flop over onto the ground (usually in early summer), carefully dig up the bulbs. Hose them off to remove any dirt and store them in the shade (an attic is ideal) for at least two weeks to cure them. You can either hang them by their leaves or lay them on a screen, but either way, be sure to store them in a way where they'll get plenty of ventilation. Once cured, store your garlic in a cool place, but not the refrigerator.

The greens are delicious, too--full of a more delicate version of the clove's flavor. You might consider planting a patch for bulbs and a patch for greens, since harvesting greens from your bulb patch will result in smaller cloves. Your greens patch cloves can be planted much more closely, since you don't need room for the bulbs to develop. To harvest, simply cut the leaves close to the bulb, and enjoy them in salads, soups and stir fries. Your greens patch will continue to produce for several years.

When you're buying garlic, don't be afraid to poke it a little. Go ahead. Give it a firm squeeze, too. Don't worry if anybody stares--you're just testing to see how fresh it is. Fresh garlic is hard underneath the skin; if the skin gives, the cloves have started to shrivel so don't buy it. Leave any moldy or sprouting ones behind, too. Your bulbs will last for about two months when stored in a cool, dry, dark place.

As a general rule, hard-neck garlic is best for home gardens (the flavor is better, the cloves are larger and it is usually easier to peel.) You'll have to buy it from a specialty grower such as Garlicsmiths, (509) 738-4470--you may be able to find it at a nursery. If you live in the South, you may have better luck with softneck garlic, which is what you'll find in the grocery store.

The way you prepare garlic depends on how you're using it. As a rule, the more gently it's handled the more gentle the flavor will be. The more you abuse it, the stronger the flavor.

Why? Crushing or breaking the cells in the clove releases its oil. When that oil reacts with enzymes present, it produces that incredible flavor. The more cells that are crushed the more flavor is released. That's why a whole bulb has just a faint garlic aroma but the scent of a clove forced through the tiny holes of a garlic press can fill a room. Those oils are volatile, though, so they don't last long, which is why the flavor of pressed garlic seems to disappear in long-cooked foods. So, the longer you're cooking the food, the larger the garlic pieces should be.

Raw garlic has the most assertive flavor because its oils are the strongest. That's also why it has the most powerful effect on your breath. I love raw garlic rubbed on toasted French bread and also use pressed raw garlic for the terrific flavor it adds to salad dressings and marinades. We eat our version of bruschetta at least once a week.

6 pieces of French or Italian bread (baguettes are perfect), sliced 1/2" to 3/4" thick
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Lightly toast the bread--you want the surface to be crisp but not browned. While it is still warm, rub the garlic on it, and start by rubbing lightly. If you love garlic, rub hard. The rough texture of the bread will grate the garlic, leaving the juice and little bits of garlic behind. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately with a hearty red wine.

Sautéing garlic in a little fat helps spread the flavor throughout a dish (and the mouth-watering aroma throughout the house). It's also the easiest way to burn garlic, so make sure the fat isn't TOO hot. If the garlic does burn, toss it and the fat out, wash the pot and start over, because burned garlic has an acrid, bitter taste that permeates and ruins whatever it's used in. To avoid overcooking it, add the next ingredient as soon as you can smell the garlic cooking. Sautéing is best for thin slices, minced or pressed garlic.

Garlic and Olive oil pasta

2 cloves pressed garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups cooked pasta
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt to taste

Saute the garlic in the olive oil until it is translucent but not browned. Toss it with the pasta and cheese, then add salt to taste. This is also delicious with a little cooked shrimp added, too.

Roasting garlic gives it a deliciously mild, nutty flavor and makes it perfect for adding to dips or squeezing right from the clove onto bread. I use a terracotta roaster, but you can just cover an ovenproof dish with foil.

Roasted garlic

1 bulb of garlic
1 tablespoon of olive oil

Slice the top off the bulb--just enough to expose the ends of the cloves--put it in an ovenproof dish, drizzle olive oil over it, cover with foil and bake in a 325 degree oven until the cloves are soft. This will take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour depending on the size of the bulb and the freshness of the garlic. When it cools slightly, just squeeze the cloves onto bread or even onto steak.

Slow simmering of whole cloves in liquids such as stocks, soups and stews releases a mild garlic flavor. You can even blanch garlic to puree with sauces--toss peeled cloves into a pan of cold water, let it boil and drain. You'll be left with a milder clove that's perfect for sauces that need garlic's subtler side.

This soup is a perfect pick-you-up for anyone with a cold. With this much garlic in it, even the stuffiest of heads will be able to detect the flavor.

Get-Better Garlic Broth

4 cups chicken broth
6 cloves garlic

Add the garlic cloves to the broth and simmer on low for a 45 minutes. Puree the garlic in the broth, and serve with plenty of love.

No matter what your use, you first need to separate them from the bulb and then peel them. If you put the bulb point-side down on the counter and gently press on the root end with your palm, it will separate into cloves. The easiest way to peel the cloves is to smash them with the flat side of a knife or the bottom of a glass (I like to throw in a few "hiiieee-YAHs" for effect). If you need a whole, unbruised clove, microwave it for twenty seconds on high, let it cool and the clove will pop right out.

If, after indulging in a garlic-fest you've noticed a cloud of garlic fumes following you like Pigpen's dust, it's because garlic's compounds are absorbed into your body and released through your pores. Unfortunately, there's no cure for it except the time it takes for the compounds to leave your body, but a long, hot shower helps.

If you're handling raw garlic, immediately rub your hands on stainless steel after handling the cloves to keep the oils from penetrating. I use measuring spoons or a steel bowl, but if your sink is stainless steel, rub your hands on that.

About that garlic breath? There's not a whole lot you can do if you eat the raw or nearly raw stuff except mask the scent by chewing on parsley. My favorite method of disguise is to make sure everyone around me has at least as much as I do.

Hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right?

About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.

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