A Bulb and Beyond

The Garlic Trend

by Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

Pick up the menu at just about any local restaurant and you'll find garlic. In the way that baked potatoes were once served with anything and everything, garlic has become an expected ingredient in a meal. Garlic mashed potatoes, salads laced with it, roasted garlic, and hundreds of variations on aioli, Provence's traditional garlic-infused mayonnaise, greet diners at spots both sophisticated and casual. Grocery shelves are stocked with an ever-growing array of garlic salsas, sauces and spreads. Produce sections feature the classic white bulb as well as the sweeter lavender and mammoth elephant varieties. Garlic, obviously, is "in."

I have a love-hate relationship with the stuff. The powerful bulb, first cultivated in the Kirgiz desert region of Siberia, often seduces me, its alluring aroma and deep flavor can impregnate a dish with fullness. Other times, garlic manifests itself at the table with all the grace of a buffoon, overwhelming an otherwise well-executed dinner and rendering it scarcely tolerable. But being a food lover today means co-existing harmoniously with garlic. From its distant beginnings, garlic has proliferated, becoming a key component in practically every major cuisine worldwide. Peasant food from the Mediterranean to the Balkans to the Far East depends on garlic for its hearty flavor and nutritional value, while more refined cuisine relies equally on the aromatic bulb to enhance its subtle flavors.

The Chinese have incorporated garlic into their diet for centuries. Europeans embraced the bulb at the time of the Crusades. And Native Americans long ago recognized the virtues of the wild shoots. (Marquette's exploration named Chicago -- Chi-gaga-Wunj -- for the wild garlic a Great Lakes tribe advised they consume to stave off starvation.) Only the Japanese take exception to garlic, its strong flavor too disturbing for the delicate balance they strive to create in their cuisine.

Neither spice, nor herb, nor vegetable, garlic, allium sativum, is a member of the lily family, "a flower of the kitchen" that embellishes efforts at the stove and possesses legendary medicinal properties. Garlic keeps vampires at bay, of course, and reputedly boosts failing virility. The Romans administered garlic to soldiers for increased strength. Greek Olympians chewed the bulb before entering the ring. And the slaves that constructed Egypt's magnificent pyramids are said to have subsisted on a diet composed largely of garlic. Pliny, in his Natural History, cites garlic in 61 different cures while European doctors of the Middle Ages prescribed allium sativum as a remedy for asthma, hepatitis, toothaches, and snake bites. Today, doctors and researchers praise garlic for its heart healthiness and anti-carcinogenic properties, and independent studies have credited the bulb with lowering cholesterol and cutting the risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. Why, then, shouldn't garlic be loved by all?

Detractors point to garlic's offensive odor as reason enough to leave it well alone. In previous times, the etiquette-conscious English shunned eaters of garlic as "uncivilized." Roman nobles apparently believed likewise, leaving the stinking lily to the masses. It is garlic's component organic sulfides that allow for both its odiferous and medicinal qualities. Diallyl disulphide makes garlic strong-smelling, while allyl thiosulphinate is responsible for its medicinal properties. Cooking garlic, whether sautéing, roasting, or frying it, breaks down its diallyl and removes the unpleasant bite, but unfortunately, reduces the plant's medicinal effects at the same time.

Indeed, how garlic is treated in the kitchen has much to do with how it contributes to or detracts from a successful meal. While helping my French grandmother prepare for a holiday banquet, I was instructed to cut garlic cloves in half and remove the green or off-color core from each clove. In doing so, I learned, no one would suffer lingering garlic halitosis. Old wives' tale? Perhaps, but I continue to practice this preparation without fail.

Used raw, garlic is at its strongest. Those seeking subtlety should know that pushing garlic through a press, which releases its essential oils, ensures a powerful punch, the result much stronger than if the same clove is minced. It is possible, however, to incorporate raw garlic into menus with delicate results. To give your salads or grilled vegetables a gentle boost, rub a peeled, raw garlic clove (cloves should be firm and slightly moist) around your serving bowl or platter. Those fond of more punch may prefer to mash a whole clove into olive oil, vinegar, seasoned salt, and ground black pepper for a simple, flavorful vinaigrette. A favorite Spanish snack calls for rubbing raw garlic across a piece of toasted bread, followed by a brush of fresh tomato and a drizzle of lemon juice. In fact, several Mediterranean cooking traditions rely on spiking dishes with garlic by rubbing a fresh clove across a toasted bread slice instead of integrating the clove itself into the mixture. Recipes suggest tossing the garlic-infused bread in salad (the precursor to croutons?) or stuffing it into a chicken or game bird prior to roasting. Raw garlic is also ideal in marinades where fish, meats, or vegetables absorb its perfume in equilibrium.

Garlic humbles when heated, although it should never be overcooked. Sauteed garlic allowed to become too brown will plague your preparation with a bitter, almost metallic flavor and poses digestion difficulties. Those who aren't big fans of the bulb will likely find garlic more palatable once blanched. Roasting whole bulbs glistening with olive oil, whether in a terra cotta roaster or bundled in foil, should make a garlic convert out of even the most doubting diner as roasting the bulbs, skin intact, reduces each individual clove to the consistency of whipped butter. The mellow spread is wonderful on bread or crostini. Garlic fried until golden makes a unique, edible garnish.

Although I certainly love garlic, I'm a champion of moderation. Too much of a good thing can still be too much, and home and professional chefs alike ought to recognize that their passion for this strange lily may not be equally shared by others. Garlic should add soul to a dish, not become its most discernible ingredient. Two French Jesuits summed up my philosophy of striving for artistic balance in garlic use in L'Art de Bien Traiter (The Art of Entertaining), in these words: "...the science of a chef consists of mixing and blending ingredients so that no ingredient dominates the others and the taste of them all comes through... giving them that unity that painters give to colors..."

Garlic Soup

This French version of Spain's legendary Sopa de Ajo is credited with chasing away hangovers, oncoming colds, and the winter blues. Despite its abundance of cloves, the soup remains surprisingly mellow. Serves six.

20 peeled garlic cloves

2 T olive or sunflower oil

2 quarts chicken broth

1/4 t dijon mustard

1 clove

1/4 t grated lemon peel

4 egg yolks, beaten

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 slices toasted or stale coarse farm bread

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Sauté garlic cloves in oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan until golden. Add chicken broth, clove, lemon peel, and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Allow to cool and remove clove. In a separate bowl, beat mustard and egg yolks. Transfer cooled broth to a blender and purée. Return to saucepan. Pour a tablespoon or two of cooled broth into egg yolk mixture and blend well, stirring constantly. Pour egg yolk mixture into saucepan away from heat, stirring constantly. Return to low heat and continue stirring. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve once heated through over toasted bread. Top with grated cheese. n

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