I cannot cook without garlic. Sometimes I like to think of myself as an artist in the kitchen, with a palette of ingredients laid out in front of me that can be turned into something revelatory if all put together in certain combination. Cooking without garlic would be like trying to paint while missing one of the primary colors.
Fall in the New Orleans garden is time for planting and enjoying the many root vegetables. One of the most commonly overlooked root vegetables in the backyard garden is garlic. Many people don't grow vegetables that can be bought cheaply at the grocery store (like potatoes, corn, onions), but to me, the value is easily made up in flavor. Garlic is a staple in my kitchen, and I grow my own because its taste has substance and meaning; it would taste completely different if someone else grew it. Growing my own vegetables also ensures that I get to eat the varieties that I want, that I can't always find at the grocery store or farmer's market like mache, broccoli raab, or this year, Creole garlic.
I began growing garlic on a bit of a whim a few years ago when a large head full of cloves started sprouting in my refrigerator. My laissez farmer philosophy told me not to try to dampen the plants desire to reproduce, but to make it work to my advantage. I planted the sprouted cloves one inch deep in the back of my raised beds as an experiment and figured I would eat the pungent greens through the winter in place of green onions; I didn't think I would have the patience to wait six or seven months for the bulbs to fully develop. So I planted in October and watched as the spiky greens shot through the cold soil about a month later when not much else was growing. The garlic then proceeded to thrive on neglect, slowly growing throughout the winter months. Not once did I fertilize, or water during that time.
Since it was growing in the back of the garden, and I had plenty of green onions to go around, the green garlic ended up turning into heads of garlic by May. Once the weather got warmer, the garlic tops began to brown and die back, creating the papery shell that lines a good head of garlic.
I dug each head carefully out of the ground and brushed the dirt off before laying them out to dry for a few weeks, called curing. Then, all that was left to do was to peel off the dirty layer of papery skin, trim the dead stalk and the roots and store to use as needed. If you're crafty, or so inclined to learn, you can braid your garlic harvest. With any luck at all, you'll still have plenty of garlic to use through the fall and winter, when garlic becomes the star of its own recipes in my kitchen and it no longer is used merely as an accent for summer vegetables.
I particularly love roasting heads of garlic whole, then making a spread from the roasted cloves, with just the simple addition of a little olive oil and salt and mashing with a fork, then spreading over toasted bread. But that's only something that can be enjoyed in the presence of good friends and true garlic lovers.
Another recipe where garlic shines is in a soup made from a few simple ingredients (below). When the garlic is sliced, rather than crushed or pushed through a press, it maintains a more subtle and sweet flavor.
To try planting garlic this month, head to the grocery store. Look for organic garlic (hasn't been sprayed to resist sprouting), with firm bulbs. Separate the head into individual cloves and plant, pointy side up, about 2 inches deep and six inches apart. If you're looking for fancy varieties, look online at gourmetgarlicgardens.com, but avoid the hardneck varieties as they need a long, cold winter to produce a good crop.
Spanish-style Garlic Soup (Sopa de Ajo) for one:
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 2 cups stock
- A pinch of sea salt
- 1 oz day-old crusty bread, cubed
- 1 large egg
Heat the olive oil in a small sauce pan. Sauté the sliced garlic over medium heat, for 1 to 1-1/2 minutes, until it just starts to color and become aromatic. Remove from the heat and stir in the paprika, then add the stock and salt. Return the pot to the heat, cover, and simmer gently for 4-5 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste if necessary.
Add the dry bread and simmer for 2 minutes to soften the bread. In a small bowl, crack an egg, while keeping the yolk intact. Slide the egg gently into the soup, and be sure it's fully submerged. If it isn't, carefully ladle some hot broth over it to cook the top. Simmer until the white of the egg is opaque but the yolk is still soft, about 3 minutes. Pour the soup into a soup bowl and serve at once.
If you'd like to adapt the recipe to feed four, simply adjust the ingredients, and preheat the oven to 450 before you begin. Once the broth is finished (after simmering the bread), ladle the soup into four ovenproof bowls and gently break one egg into each one. Place the bowls in the oven for about three or four minutes until the eggs are set. Serve at once.