Garlic. There is probably no other food that has as much written about it recently. In the world of miracle foods, garlicfresh or in capsulesis extolled as the appropriate medicine for the hypertense, arthritic, and generally dyspeptic. Crushed garlic, strewn through a garden , is purported to stop fungus and parasites.
Conversely, there are claims that garlic does relatively little and is low in nutrients. But there is tremendous agreement that garlic is great in the kitchen. Everyone knows what it tastes like. More important than a first kiss, is that first date in a restaurant when both were willing to eat the garlic. Or, as A Cooks Alphabet of Quotations notes, A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat.
Its garlics toxins that pack the punch: allicin and mustard oil. The former gives garlic its signature taste and aroma. The latter gives fresh garlic its bite. This is a volatile oil. It dissipates rapidly. That is why powdered or dried garlic doesnt have the same sharp taste. It also disappears in cooking, even as the sugars in garlic slowly caramelize. That is why roasted or braised garlic can taste sweet.
Garlic is from the same family as onions, leeks, and chives all of which can replace garlic in a pinch. Of course, since garlic can last for a long time, its easy to keep several heads around. In fact, this is a good time for stocking up. The long woven strands available at market are made from garlic meant to be stored through the fall and winter. For eating now, look for a darker, almost dirty garlic available at many stands. It has larger cloves, is slightly sweeter and very tasty fresh, but it does not keep its flavour during cooking as well as the later varieties.
There are several kinds of garlic at market: a potent red tinged or Italian (sometimes called Mexican) garlic, the common silver skinned, and even a very large one known as elephant toe garlic. While impressive, this variety has the least flavour.
Ail du midi is the local name for a new variety available here. It has a less intense bite and a sweeter flavour than other garlics. It would be perfect for salad dressings or recipes in which the garlic is barely cooked. It is grown locally from bulbs imported from Provence. Look for it at Cinq Saisons stores and les douceurs du marché at the Atwater market.
Garlic lasts longest kept in a closed container in a cool part of the kitchen. There should be some ventilation (dont store garlic in a plastic bag). Refrigerators can be poor places to keep garlic if they are too dry. Dont separate the cloves from the bulbs until they will be used. If you have to substitute dried or powdered garlic for fresh, figure that 1/8 of a teaspoon of either is equivalent to one clove. When using garlic cloves, cut through them lengthwise and remove any bitter green shoots that may have started to grow.
My favourite garlic recipe is for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. Most French cook books have a version. I confess to making this, savoring the intensely flavoured roasted garlic, soaking up the juices with hunks of baguette, and cheerfully ignoring the chicken. This is a dish best eaten among good friends.