By Ellen Kelly
I admit, my youth (spent for the most part in southern Alberta) was not blessed with garlic. I had Italian and Eastern European friends; dinner at their homes was often an eye-opener, but I didn’t know why. My mother and grandmother, both good cooks in their own rights, would not have known what to do with a clove of fresh garlic. It was only in later years that my mother discovered garlic salt and powder and her version of “spaghetti sauce” took a decidedly tastier turn.
Before you roll your eyes at garlic powder or salt, know that they are good products and a boon to any pantry. Fresh garlic, when chopped and used raw, is hot and aggressive, sometimes too much so. A vinaigrette needs that sparkle of raw garlic. Cooked whole, however, garlic is sweet and mellow. I always toss 3-4 (or more) peeled whole cloves in with boiling potatoes for mashed. The flavour is much different than if I had added minced raw garlic at the end. Roasting garlic, another approach, achieves a rich luscious flavour enhanced by caramelization.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s, early 1980s that I was properly introduced to Allium sativum. Les Blank made a marvelous film called Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Alice Waters came on the scene and the Gilroy Garlic Festival was born… garlic had officially arrived. The first of many trips to Northern California gave me Potter Valley roasted garlic heads squeezed onto crusty bread and oeil de perdrix-style rosé, before the local winemakers began to snub their collective noses at anything pink. White Zinfandel has a lot to answer for! As far as food revelations go, it was right up there with eating raw tuna for the first time.
An obsession with pesto came next and although it has waned somewhat, an herb pesto is still one of the most versatile things to have on hand. I make it once or twice a year and freeze the result. Although basil pesto is most well-known, don’t be afraid to use a different herb, nut and/or cheese.
One of my favourites is parsley, garlic, walnut and tangy Pecorino Romano. Pound about 4-5 garlic gloves in a large mortar and pestle with a good sprinkling of kosher salt. Add about ¼ cup lightly toasted walnuts and continue to pound away. Roughly chop a generous bunch of sweet (taste the stems) flat-leaf parsley (about 1 to 1½ cups) and add to the mortar, with more grinding to achieve a desired consistency. Combine ¼ cup walnut oil and ¼ cup olive oil and slowly add to the garlic/walnut mixture, stirring vigorously. Stir in ¼ cup grated Romano cheese (or Parmesan, if that’s what you have), a good grinding of black pepper and salt for taste. Adjust texture with a little more olive oil if required. This lovely sauce can be tossed with pasta or roasted vegetables, added to vinaigrettes, spread on sandwiches and dolloped on baked potatoes. It can also be made in a food processor, just watch you don’t over process.
Aioli is another versatile condiment and if you’re not inclined to make your own mayonnaise, it couldn’t be easier. Crush several cloves of garlic, chop finely and work it into a paste with the side of your knife, using salt as an abrasive.
Add to good mayonnaise and serve with grilled fish, poached shrimp, raw vegetables, boiled potatoes, or simply spread on a sandwich.
When buying garlic, look for heads wholly enclosed in their papery skin that are tight, hard and unyielding. Eschew those with blemishes and soft spots. If later in the year you come across cloves that have just begun to sprout, they can still be used if you cut out the bitter green centres.
Hardneck garlic has a rigid stem. The heads are often streaked with red or purple, the cloves are bigger (and fewer) and the flavour tends to be more complex… but the bulbs don’t keep as long as the softneck variety. Softneck garlic is snowy white, easier to grow, more uniform in size and can be braided for ease of storage. All excellent garlic, but now we have a broader selection in our farmers’ markets with so many local farmers experimenting with different varieties and that’s always a good thing.
Fresh local garlic is generally in season during the summer and into the fall, but it is truly indispensable throughout the year. Happily, it keeps well if stored properly – dark, dry and cool, but not in the refrigerator. And while, unless you are a rabid fan, there are relatively few dishes that feature only garlic, the very presence of this “stinking rose” in many of our savoury dishes is often what makes them irresistible.