Nosh Box: A Rose by Another Name


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While not a tabletop star, garlic plays a major supporting role in many dishes globally.

CC Donovan Govan

June’s the keystone month for summer romance, so we borrow a line from Romeo and Juliet, “Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?” Garlic is oft referred to as the stinking rose, which prompted the two-outlet California restaurant chain of the same name. Garlic comes from a family of pungent aromatic vegetables whose relatives include onions, leeks, scallions, chives, and shallots.

Easy to grow in California’s soil and clime, garlic has a preferred planting season is in the fall, to produce large, succulent heads or crowns that can be harvested at the beginning of the next summer—and that means in June.

Not merely a food or flavoring, garlic has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, like soothing bug bites; and as a repellant for critters ranging from vampires, werewolves and devils, to insects and rodents.

It has also served limited duty as an aphrodisiac, to improve male libido and sexual performance. A misnamed variety with the oversized cloves, called elephant garlic, presents a double faux pas: It has nothing to do with pachyderms, and it’s not garlic, but rather a wild leek.

Which parts are eaten—and how—depends on local custom and the maturity of the plant. Young leaves and flowers are edible, producing a milder flavor than the cloves.

Partially mature garlic plants are uprooted whole and sold as spring garlic or green garlic. Originally a part of the thinning process to make room for commercial plants to expand as they mature, green garlic has emerged as a crop on its own, used in lieu of leeks, scallions, or traditional garlic. At this stage of development, spring garlic looks like a green onion or scallion. Look for spring garlic now at farmers markets and upscale produce outlets.

After a bit more maturation, a garlic round emerges at the bottom, looking like a boiling onion. The next and final growth stage produces the clustered formation of cloves covered by thin, parchment-like skin, which greengrocers now stock in dried heritage varieties.

Locally purchased garlic creates a miniscule carbon toe-print. Commercial crops prosper in local fields from Brentwood to Tracy. And nearby Gilroy bills itself as the “Garlic Capital of the World.” That city produces most of the garlic for the United States, and celebrates the harvest each July with a world-class feast: the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

DIY—Garlic is an excellent candidate crop for the home gardener, regardless of experience or skill level. Easy to grow year-round in East Bay climates, garlic requires few resources, and can flourish in planters and containers.

Nearly all of the commercially cultivated garlic results from poking individual cloves into the ground. Once planted, garlic is usually a pest-free and disease-free crop.

When selecting seed-garlic, pick large bulbs. But don’t plant supermarket cloves. They might be a type unsuited for your area. Additionally, to extend shelf life, most produce department heads are treated with preservatives, which makes them harder to germinate. The best sources for seed stock are local nurseries, local farmers or farmers markets, or a mail order seed company.

While not a tabletop star, garlic plays a major supporting role in many dishes globally. Whenever cooking with garlic, remember these simple tips: The longer garlic cooks, the mellower its flavor, and the milder its bite. And the rule for processed garlic is: The finer the dice, chop or puree, the stronger the flavor and bite. Conversely, the bigger the chunks, the tamer the taste will be.

Here are synopses for some notable domestic performances

Roasted Garlic—Trim the top from the head. Rub exposed cloves with EVOO  (extra virgin olive oil). Foil wrap, then oven roast at 400° F for about a half hour, or until cloves become soft and buttery inside skins.

Garlic Bread—Top crusty bread with garlic and olive oil—or butter. Then grill or broil on the outside.

Garlic Toast—Top crusty bread, as above, then toast in a preheated 425° F oven until browned.

Crostini—Coat thin slices of crusty bread or baguette with oil, then grill both sides. Rub surfaces with a fresh garlic clove, then salt lightly.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes—Three different techniques, each produce a different flavor and sharpness. 1) Mix pressed raw garlic into the finished mash. 2) Squeeze roasted garlic over boiled potatoes, then mash together. 3.) Boil whole garlic cloves with potatoes, drain and mash together. In all cases, whip in warm milk and soft butter to taste.

Garlic Aioli—Process raw, pressed garlic—or squeezed roasted garlic—into your favorite blender-mayonnaise recipe.

Garlic Pizza—Spread roasted garlic over pizza dough. Sprinkle with dry oregano, red pepper flakes and grated dry cheese. Bake at 400°F for 12 minutes, or until the center undulates and the crust turns golden brown.

Garlic-Infused Oils—Buy a commercial garlic-EVOO. Vegetable oil provides an anaerobic environment suitable for ubiquitous botulinum clostridium spores to mature to a colony—with lethal results. Not a risk that home cooks should take, despite the popularity of the practice. This applies to all fresh-herb-infused oils.

As June progresses, keep in mind what sage New Yorkers say about the stinking rose, “A Transit Authority token gets you into the subway, but garlic can get you a seat.”

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