Miriam's Garden: The magic of garlic is coming to a head


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We're having a spate of cool, unseasonable yet truly delightful weather. The other morning, I was wearing a light sweatshirt. When my husband, David, awoke at 5:30 a.m. to see to the dog and cats, he pulled on a knit cap. It was that chilly.

Due to the cool weather, some things in the garden seem behind schedule. Not the beautiful purple-striped garlic, which we harvested a couple weeks ago. We mostly grew a variety called ‘Chesnok Red.’ I purchased it from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange last summer while I was presenting at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. A hardneck garlic, it grows best in climates with a cold winter. Softneck garlic, which you can braid, grows better in warmer climates.

We dug up the garlic, carefully wiped off the dirt and arranged it, greens attached, in perforated trays. It's drying up in the top floor of the breezy barn. David tilled the space where it grew and we've already planted some new things: cucumbers, squash, basil, green and yellow beans and a cool chard, ‘Lucullus,’ named after a Roman General. Plus some annual flowers, just to spark things up.

Conjuring up garlic recipes while I weeded the garden, I was mulling over the idea of a parsley-garlic sauce. "America's Test Kitchen" was on the radio. Like kismet, hosts Bridget Lancaster and Christopher Kimball were discussing how to tame raw garlic. Exactly my dilemma. Sometimes you want the garlic punch, but sometimes, it’s overwhelming.

To tame garlic, you can roast the whole head, which is lovely, but takes an hour. You can blanch cloves in boiling water for a minute or two, but I was intrigued with something said about toasting garlic.

I didn't catch it all, distracted by the weeds. Later, I researched and came across a toasting method in John Ash's book "From the Earth to the Table."

It's simple. You toast the unpeeled cloves in a dry, heavy skillet over medium heat, turning often, until they brown in spots and are soft. Takes 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the pan and let them cool. Peel and mash in a bowl with a fork or smash with the side of a chef's knife. Works great, adding a toasty but not biting garlic flavor. Use this for my Toasted Garlic-Parsley Sauce or for your next batch of hummus.

The day after my toasted garlic experiment, I was on a plane flying to Cleveland (two planes, actually). Next to me was Hui Zhang, a young Chinese woman on her way to Case-Western for a Ph.D. program. Her English was excellent, my Chinese was nonexistent and we were delayed on the runway, so we looked at pictures of food on my phone. I learned that garlic plays an important role in Chinese food.

We checked out an image of a Chinese seafood feast: A whole steamed fish with scallions, fried fish fillets and some oysters. Accompanied by a bowl of raw chopped garlic. You eat a little bit with the fish, Hui explained.

"Raw garlic can help you avoid cancer, and may also kill any bad bacteria that might be in the seafood." The garlic must be chopped in advance, she said, so more surface is exposed and it has contact with the air. This helps with the cancer-preventing properties.

Garlic is a magical thing, and it's not just the Chinese who feel it has health-giving properties. We know that a raw clove a day can provide potassium, iron, selenium along with vitamins B-6 and C.

But for me, the magic happens when you take one little clove, plant it mid-October to mid-November, about 3 inches deep, with the pointed end up. Mulch with straw; weed in the spring. Harvest sometime in July. When it's ready, writes Ira Wallace in "Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast,” "The bottom third of the leaves are brown and the top four or eight leaves are still green." You carefully dig up the garlic. From that single clove, a whole head is born. Save some for planting in the fall.

Sugo con Pomodorini Gratinati alla Calabrese (Calabrian Baked Small Tomatoes)

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This wonderful summertime dish is from the James Beard Foundation-award-winning book "Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way." As soon as my cherry tomatoes and ‘Juliet’ tomatoes (the baby plums) ripen, I will be making it again. Our fresh-as-can-be garlic added a great touch. You also can add fresh basil to the finished dish. I toned down the hot pepper flakes, but it's up to the diner.

For the sauce (the authors call it Condimento):

1 tablespoon medium fruity extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound large cherry or grape tomatoes, about walnut-size, halved

2 fat cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 to 1 teaspoon kosher salt (recipe called for 1 teaspoon)

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (recipe called for a whole teaspoon)

For the pasta

3 tablespoons kosher salt

1 pound short pasta, such as ziti, rigatoni, orecchiette or medium shells

5 tablespoons medium fruity extra-virgin olive oil

About 1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the sauce: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish or casserole with the 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Place cherry tomatoes in oiled dish cut side up and close together in a single layer. Sprinkle with garlic, oregano, salt and red pepper flakes. Bake until quite tender, 30 to 40 minutes. They should be starting to color around the edges, but don't let them brown. Cover dish to keep warm until pasta is ready. (You also can do this earlier in the day. Reheat tomatoes gently in a low oven while the pasta cooks.)

For pasta: Bring 5 quarts of water to boil in large pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt and the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.

Warm a serving bowl in the oven or under warm water.

Drain the pasta. Either transfer it to the baking dish of tomatoes, or if that dish isn't big enough, transfer tomatoes and juices to the warmed serving bowl. Add pasta to tomatoes and mix well, crushing the tomatoes gently while tossing the pasta (this makes the sauce). Mix in the 5 tablespoons oil and the cheese and toss again. Serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way" by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant (Norton, 2013, $35)

Toasted Garlic-Parsley Sauce

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See the accompanying story for directions on toasting garlic cloves. This sauce added exceptional flavor to a juicy steak that I also rubbed with a toasted garlic clove when I took it out of the skillet. Later on, I spooned some of the sauce over pieces of sparkling-fresh grouper and broiled the fish. There was a touch leftover so I used as a finishing sauce on the grouper, which I served with fresh-dug boiled potatoes from neighbor Mark's garden. That was an amazing meal.

2 toasted garlic cloves, peeled and mashed on cutting board with flat side of chef's knife

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

pinch freshly ground pepper

Scrape mashed toasted garlic into a medium nonmetalic bowl. Add salt and mix with fork until blended and smooth. Using fork, whisk in olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, oregano and pepper. Let stand 30 minutes. Taste, adding more salt or lemon juice, if you wish. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Makes about 1/3 cup.

-- Miriam Rubin


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