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Clove Encounters

excerpted from Sally Schneider's column “Well–Being,” Food & Wine, June 1999

It wasn’t long ago that I despaired of finding good garlic in this country. The sprouting woody heads available in markets — even the fat photogenic ones — were a far cry from the firm juicy garlic I cook with when I'm in Europe. American garlic was invariably old, of a season passed. Nobody here seemed to understand that garlic has a peak season too and requires careful storage if its best qualities are to be preserved throughout the year.

Now great garlic is available at many American markets — a testament to the profound culinary changes of the past decade. Not only can I now buy wonderful garlic, but I can find it in several different forms as it matures.

In June at my local farmers’ market, Keith Stewart of Keith’s Farm in Orange County, New York, in the Delaware River valley, sells young green garlic that looks like a thin leek with a minaret–like tip. Because the small bulb at its root end is barely formed, it has a sweet, mild and aromatic garlic flavor. It is good used as both a seasoning and as a vegetable on its own. As the weeks pass and the bulbs begin to fatten into tender juicy cloves, I’ll begin to use them for dishes that feature garlic. By late July, the unkempt bulbs are fully developed into firm compact heads. I revel in fresh garlic all summer, using it with abandon in garlic sauces and soups and roasting the heads whole in the oven to squeeze onto slices of grilled bread.

Come October, I hoard garlic, buying several pounds to use in the coming months, I know that as it ages, the flavor will become too aggressive for those dishes in which garlic predominates. I’ll use it instead as an adjunct flavoring, first splitting the cloves in half to and removing the bitter green sprout. The winter garlic, mellowed by slow cooking, will remind me of its vibrant summer self.

Garlic Guidelines

Buying Garlic. Green garlic has a much milder sweeter flavor than mature garlic. Like leeks, the tender bulb and pale green part is delicious eaten as a vegetable or in soups; use the tough green stalks as a flavoring. To prepare for cooking, cut away the roots and all but two or three inches of the greens attached to the white shoots. Use the shoots whole or sliced. Store green garlic in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Mature heads should be firm, with no trace of mold or sprouting.

There are many varieties of garlic, many of them charmingly red hued. Look for Lorz’s Italian Red, Purple Tip, Simonetti and especially the ancient Longicuspus, said to be thousands of years old, whose grain–like seeds are delicious sprinkled in salads, omelets, sautes.

Garlic Storage. To retard the inevitable sprouting, garlic should be kept in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight. I store mine in a covered basket away from heat on a drafty window sill.

To Roast Garlic. Peel the papery white skin off 4 heads of garlic. Brush them lightly with olive oil and wrap in foil along with a few sprigs of thyme and a tablespoon water. Bake about 45 minutes at 400°.

Mail Order Sources. Green garlic doesn’t ship well, but mature heads do. Filaree Farm (509-422-6940) sells about 100 varieties; Blue Moon Farm (606-328-2401) has eight; Gourmet Garlic Garden (915-348-3049) offers more than a dozen.

Click the image to read a companion recipe, Roasted Garlic