Set the Table with Garlic
Written onAugust 24 , 2015
If you search the word garlic online, you may end up believing it is the panacea for all that ails us. Garlic was given to soldiers and athletes in ancient Greece to promote vigor. Later it was used to treat nearly every type of illness from the plague to dropsy to “women’s nervous disorders.” Modern studies have shown it to lower cholesterol and it may have a role in fighting cancer, lowering blood pressure, and tackling the common cold.
And yet, if you read the fine print, analysis for a typical serving of 1 to 3 cloves (3–9 grams) shows insignificant nutritional value. In fact, you would need to ingest 100 grams of garlic (approximately 33 cloves) before you would feel the benefits of its B vitamins and dietary minerals. So what is it about garlic that apparently makes us feel better?
Perhaps it’s the smell of garlic cooking in a pan, which always elicits a feeling of well being for me. The smell means a good meal is on its way—a meal that took a little time to prepare with the care of peeling and chopping a fresh clove or two. It signifies warmth and a hearty soup in the winter or a deliciously salty-sweet barbecue in the summer. Nearly all dips, such as salsa or hummus, incorporate it and almost any pasta dish I would cook includes it. In short, it is at the heart of my cooking. So whether or not garlic has compounds that biologically promote good health, it is certain that a meal cooked with garlic feeds the soul, and that, for me, makes it truly medicinal.
I have been growing garlic on my farm in Cambridge for 14 years. It is a crop well suited to Vermont and is fairly easy to grow and market. To plant it, you separate the cloves and plant them root-down in organic-rich soil, about 4 inches apart, 2 inches under the soil. If you mulch the bed with a thick layer of straw, the crop is nearly maintenance free until harvest the following July. You plant in late September through October because garlic likes to settle in for the winter and wake up in its own bed in the spring. There have been many winters when I feared there was little possibility the crop would survive the extreme cold, but every spring it pops up at the same time as the daffodils and I marvel at its strong constitution.
I have grown as many as 12 varieties at a time but am now down to just 4. When I took all 12 varieties to market years ago, customers were fascinated to see the different shapes, sizes, and colors available: wide and flat, purple striped, silver and delicate, and absolutely monstrous. I cut back to fewer varieties because now I mostly sell wholesale but I always have an eye out for unusual shapes or colors I’ve never tried before.
If you would like to grow some yourself, choosing the variety is just a matter of selecting a few different kinds with characteristics that appeal to you. From a grower’s perspective, a variety that is hardy and has many cloves and good longevity in storage is ideal. Siberian and Italian hardnecks and all varieties of softnecks are good options. The more cloves in the head, the more plants each head will make, and the easier it is to increase your stock. From a cook’s perspective, a large head with a few, large cloves is best because it means less tedious peeling. German Extra Hardy, Music and Red Russian are all big and meaty. Or you could pick one randomly because it has a cool name, like Georgia Fire. I have been guilty of this.
If you continue to plant your own stock every year using the best of your crop, the garlic will adapt to your soils and conditions. For example, several years ago, I acquired three unusual heads of Spanish garlic. I had never seen a head of garlic that was so wide and flat, and I wanted to add it to my selection just for its novelty. I suspected, however, that it wouldn’t do well in our climate. Sure enough, only 50 percent survived the winter. Nevertheless, I took the survivors and replanted them last fall. About 70 percent made it this year. I am hoping if I continue this selection process I will condition this peculiar variety to my farm.
The last thing to consider is whether to grow hardneck or softneck varieties. Hardnecks will produce a scape in mid-June. The scape will grow out of the center and eventually produce a flower. You want to cut the scape when it has started to curl its tip so the plant directs its energy toward the head underground and not the flower. Luckily, the scape is delicious and can be used in place of the cloves while you are waiting for your crop. My favorite use of scapes is to dice them (don’t use the tip above the flower—too tough) and sprinkle them over chips and cheese, then broil for some excellent nachos. A softneck variety does not produce a scape and, as its name implies, has a pliable neck. This is the variety you want if you would like to make garlic braids. (Do not attempt to braid hardnecks, it is an exercise in frustration.) There are many tutorials on YouTube on how to braid garlic but keep in mind that each braid will take at minimum eight heads to look good so make sure you plant enough.
Harvest garlic when the lower leaves have started to turn brown—this is usually around mid-July in our region. Shake any excess dirt off the roots and hang it in a cool, protected area for six weeks to cure. I hang my garlic in bunches in the barn and tie about six to eight heads on one end of a 24-inch string and the same on the other. Each string gets tagged with a piece of masking tape with the variety name on it and then I hang the whole dirty mess from the rafters in the barn. In mid-September I take the garlic down string by string and cut off the stalks and roots. At that point, it is usually dry enough that a quick brush over the outer skin with my hands gets off any dirt off.
At the height of my garlic operation, I had 800 pounds or so to clean in the fall. It sounds like a lot but truthfully, this is a job one can do sitting down, listening to NPR in the cool shade of the barn at a time in the farming season when sitting down is very appealing. Always store your garlic in a cool, dry place with good airflow. I learned the hard way not to store it in a closed plastic bin as it will get moldy. If you cure it properly, it should store anywhere from three to seven months.
The most important role of garlic, of course, is as an ingredient. Where to use garlic is like asking where one should use butter: everywhere. There are a few things to remember about cooking with it. It may be counter intuitive, but garlic is at its mildest when it is freshly harvested; the longer it has cured, the more intense the flavor. For this reason, I prefer to use one clove for most uncooked sauces and dips, such as hummus, dressing, or pesto. Garlic should be a team player with the rest of your ingredients and, when used raw, more than one gives it field dominance. For dishes where it is cooked, such as soups or stir frys, don’t hold back. Cooking mellows its zing but adds a sweet, robust flavor to any savory dish.