By Kathy Gunst, "A Fresh Look at Garlic,"March/April 2013
Garlic is the spine of all my cooking, the backbone of the flavors in my repertoire. I can't make pasta or roast a chicken without it, and I can't even imagine soups, stews, salad dressings, stir-fries, sauces or dips without the assertive, sweet, you-won't-forget-me flavor of fresh garlic.
But it wasn't an ingredient I gave much thought to until one day about 20 years ago, a friend brought me a few heads of garlic from her garden. I thought it an odd gift, garlic being so inexpensive and plentiful. But the skin popped off to reveal creamy white, firm, fresh pungent cloves. It smelled unlike any garlic I’d ever purchased—it smelled like the earth. The cloves were juicy when I chopped them. I was making my go-to pasta sauce that night (olive oil with sautéed chopped garlic, parsley, basil and capers), when I decided to add a few extra cloves of the garden garlic. I’d been making this quick sauce for years, but suddenly it was transformed. My Tuesday-night pasta sauce had a new depth of flavor. It was rich, heady and almost buttery. At that point I knew. I'd be growing garlic in my own garden.
Two decades later, it's early spring in Maine—cold and still raw, but the snow is gone. The first signs that my garden is alive and well are the small, green garlic shoots that sprout out of the mulch-covered earth. These are the garlic bulbs I planted in late November, the very last thing to go into the garden. Soon the shoots will grow to be at least a foot tall (looking like thin green leeks) and on top there will be scapes, the loopy, loosely spiral-shaped sprouts that appear at the top of the garlic plants in May. I'll use the garlic scapes (which have a subtle garlic flavor and the texture of a thick scallion) in spring salads, sautés and pickles. I'll stir-fry them with asparagus or green beans, or puree them into a scape pesto with olive oil, pepper, salt and pine nuts or almonds.
Then, in late July, when the green shoots start to wilt, I'll harvest the garlic. For each clove I planted in the fall there will be an entire new head of garlic.
Garlic-harvest day is a celebration in my kitchen. I set the heads to dry in the sun and then braid the dry tops of the garlic together to make bouquets that are beautiful and useful in the kitchen. I try to grow enough to last me through the whole winter, but it’s not easy. It’s hard to ration something you love so much.
When I cook with garlic I don’t hold back. Sure, you can use it as an accent or flavoring in virtually any type of savory cooking, but sometimes I build an entire dish around it. Take roasted garlic, for example. I take a whole head or two of garlic, cut off about ¼-inch from the top of the bulbs, place it in a small skillet and pop it in the oven. Bathed in olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, the "stinking rose" mellows and sweetens as it roasts. When it’s soft and still warm, I spread the creamy cloves onto thick crusty bread or toss them with pasta. And each spring, when the first asparagus appears, I roast the green spears (with a touch of olive oil and grated lemon zest) then top them with whole cloves of roasted garlic, fresh chives, crunchy toasted walnuts and a garlic-scape vinaigrette. Spring on a plate.
My relationship with garlic runs deep. I was reminded just how deep when a friend was recently describing the qualities she looks for in an ideal mate. She talked about wanting someone who was "passionate about his work" and "definitely not a vegetarian." It got me thinking about the question (despite the fact that I have been happily married for close to 30 years now). I admire a great sense of humor. And people who are strong, but willing to show weakness. What else? Then it hit me. I could never, ever live with someone who doesn’t adore garlic.