Old Man Winter threw those of us who live in the Northeast a wicked curve ball. March came roaring in like a lion and did not let up until the end of the month. Thankfully, the only edible in the garden right now is garlic which lives through three seasons prior to harvest. The leaves looked pitifully wilted after the late freeze but will thrive and survive until late summer (perhaps unlike my beloved hydrangea which flushed early leaves in February only to be burned by the cold).
I have previously posted about garlic scapes (please see June 2013 archive) but would like to revisit this flavorful herb as probably 80% of what I cook includes garlic in some form. Garlic is a member of the Allium family; closely related to onions and shallots. There are actually hundreds of varieties of garlic but you would have to attend a garlic festival (seriously, there are annual events held all over the world) to find some of these beautiful, rare types ~ each with their own taste and growing habits.
Sub-varieties are divided into two types ~ hard neck and soft neck. Both of these types of Allium sativum are found in grocery stores. They are unlikely to be labeled as such so how do you tell the difference? Hard neck garlic bulbs are bigger with fewer cloves. They have less ‘wrapping’, making them more susceptible to softening/rotting. The hard neck variety is where those wonderful scapes come from and if you grow it, cutting off the scape will encourage larger cloves. Soft neck garlic has many layers of the papery white skin or sheath and has many different sized cloves around the core. Because of their longer shelf life, this type is abundantly found in the grocery store.
Garlic is so simple to grow. I prefer the hard neck variety but when my friend Bas of The Farmer’s Hands gave me some heads, I quickly used them before saving some cloves to plant! He grows beautiful, exotic varieties. All you do is plant a single clove in mixed soil with the point tip up in the late fall to harvest the following summer. Each clove will produce a whole head. Mulch very lightly as they are susceptible to fungus and water once. Let Mother Nature do the rest. Within a week you will see a sprout! When ready to harvest, cut off the leaves, wipe off the dirt and store in a warm, dry place. I store mine in my clay chestnut roaster as it is useless for that purpose!
There is debate over the origin of garlic. It is believed to be native to central Asia. Wherever it originated, it is one of the world’s oldest crops. Folklore/myth has it that the pungent smell will ward off vampires and witches, the black plague and even give strength to warriors! Hippocrates once said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Fresh garlic contains an enzyme, alliin, which is a unique and efficient defense mechanism against microbial pathogens in the soil. That enzyme can be converted to allicin, a compound which has potent medicinal properties. Studies claim there can be great health benefits with high supplemental doses. It may boost the immune system against the common cold, reduce blood pressure, decrease cholesterol levels in the body and improve bone health to name a few. Garlic has been touted as having healing properties as well. In WWI, it was used as an antiseptic for gangrene once sulfur supply was depleted.
But let’s get to the punch. One little clove can add aroma and flavor to food that few ingredients can match. Avoid using pre-minced garlic ~ its flavor is weak. And don’t be a sissy about the smell on your hands. I rub my soapy hands on a stainless steel ‘stone’ to remove the scent (fresh parsley will help the breath of us ‘garlic eaters’ ~ no racial slur intended Mr. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life fame).
Some cooks fuss about removing the skin on garlic. Oh so easy…either smash the clove with the blade of a knife or rub the clove between a small rubber mat that often comes with garlic ‘gadgets’. The skin will peel right off and now the clove is ready for use.
By far, one of my favorite ways to prepare garlic is to roast it in a foil purse packet. Bob and I used to do this on the grill attached to the stern of his sailboat. Make a foil packet with the whole head, skin on and drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil. Grill for about 45 minutes until garlic is soft. Gently remove garlic by squeezing the clove. Serving it atop a grilled steak is sublime. Roasted garlic is also perfect spread on baked baguette slices. The garlic is very soft so it easily mixes with a soft cheese like goat if preferred. The nutty flavor is not overwhelming at all.
Whole cloves are often infused into oil for flavor or to make a simple vinaigrette. Restaurants frequently serve a small plate of oil with a garlic clove and bread ~ certainly a much simpler version of garlic bread. Aioli sauce, an emulsion of oil, garlic and egg yolk is loaded with garlic flavor. Personally I could smear aioli on anything. Roast chicken can be so bland but adding a lemon and a whole head of garlic in the cavity with a few other herbs is worthy of serving company. I also frequently make a dish of sautéed shrimp, steamed broccoli and finely minced garlic with a ton of butter over pasta for a quick supper.
However, the pièce de résistance of a garlic dish is made by my dear Dutch friend Miriam. The first time she made garlic soup for me I couldn’t help but think “WHAT?” I tweaked it as I always do to make it my own (even though Mir’s was perfect). The flavor is so mellow and heartwarming that you will make it over and over ~ guaranteed…
Ali’s Roasted Garlic Soup
- 3 large heads of garlic
- 5 T. olive oil, divided
- 1 large sweet onion, diced
- 2 T. butter
- 1-1/2 cups heavy cream
- 4 cups chicken broth
- ½ loaf ciabatta bread or French baguette, broken into small pieces
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Juice from 1 lemon
- Shaved Parmesan cheese for garnish
- Fresh chives, chopped for garnish
- Croutons for garnish
- Place each garlic head in its own foil packet. Cover each head with 1 T. oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake in preheated 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes until soft.
- Cool garlic and squeeze cloves gently into small bowl.
- Heat remaining 2T. oil and butter over medium heat; sauté onion until soft.
- Add broth, cream and bread; simmer 15 minutes.
- Add garlic, then working in batches, puree in food processor until smooth.
- Return to soup to pan and add cream; simmer 5 minutes to combine.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Add juice of 1 lemon to soup just prior to serving.
- Garnish with Parmesan cheese shavings and chives.
Serve soup with thick crusty bread and a side salad and there is your meal…