About Garlic

This week’s lesson: Garlic!

Garlic is related to the onion, and their flavors compliment each other nicely when cooked. Americans alone consume more than 250 million pounds of it annually, and it is a common staple in many different types of cuisines. There are hundreds of different varieties of garlic, with colors ranging from white to dark red. Elephant garlic, which has large cloves but a milder flavor, is not actually a true garlic but a closer relative to the leek.

How do you know when it is ready to harvest? 
If you planted your garlic the previous fall, the following spring, the plant begins to send up leaves. When the leaves reach 2-3 feet tall, the plant sends up a seed pod, called a scape. These leaves and scape are edible, and have a mild garlic flavor. Some people recommend cutting the scapes to allow the garlic to focus on bulb production vs. seed production. The bulbs, which lie underground and have the most flavor, are not fully mature until mid summer. It is hard to tell exactly when the bulbs are mature enough to pull, but basically they are ready when the lower leaves start to brown. The best way to tell is to dig a few bulbs and slice them in half. If the cloves fill out the skins, it’s time. NOTE: always dig out your garlic, don’t pull it out- the roots can be very strong.

How do you store it?
Brush off any soil clinging to the bulbs. Leave the stalks and roots on the bulbs while they dry.
Allow the bulbs to dry for three to four weeks in either a well-ventilated room or a dry, shady spot outside. Once the tops and roots have dried they can be cut off, or you can use them to braid the garlic and hang the braid in your garage to store. You can also further clean the bulbs by removing the outer skins; just be careful not to expose any of the cloves.

Store garlic unpeeled in an open container such as a jar or mesh bag, away from other foods. Garlic should be kept in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate or freeze unpeeled garlic. As garlic ages, it will begin to produce green sprouts in the center of each clove. These edible little green sprouts can be bitter, so cut them out of the cloves before using. Properly stored garlic can keep for up to 3 months. Once peeled, you can freeze garlic in an airtight plastic bag for longer storage.

How do you cook it?
Unless you are roasting garlic, the skin surrounding the cloves needs to be removed before eating. The skin can be hard to peel off, but to make it easy, just place the clove on a cutting board on its side, and gently press down quickly with the flat side of a butcher’s knife. The skin should then crack open and easily peel off. Garlic can be used raw, or cooked, but the flavor mellows out once cooked (raw garlic is much more pungent). Raw garlic is commonly used to flavor salad dressings, dips, and pesto. You can also try rubbing raw garlic on toasted bread for quick and easy garlic bread. Garlic can burn quickly, especially when minced, so keep an eye on the heat when cooking it. Remember that a little goes a long way, so start with less and you can always add more.

RECIPE:

Roasted garlic can add flavor to many things. Try it slathered on a slice of crusty bread, added to dips, or mixed into mashed potatoes.

Roasted Garlic

5 large heads of garlic (skin on)
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut the top ¼-inch off the heads of the garlic to expose the cloves. Place garlic cut side up in small baking dish. Add oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; rub to coat. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake until garlic skins are golden brown and cloves are tender, about 55 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic cloves from skins, and discard skins.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit (Oct. ’99)