You Leave Me (Bad) Breathless

You Leave Me (Bad) Breathless

When Mr. Potter reviled the citizens of Bedford Falls as a "bunch of garlic eaters" in "It's a Wonderful Life", no doubt his derision stemmed from the garlic's well deserved reputation as the anti-breath mint. It is justifiably called the "stinking rose" and without question, there are few ingredients which have a greater impact on the failure to obtain a goodnight kiss. Nevertheless, garlic is a well accepted ingredient in most cuisines, from the Pacific Rim, to Mexican and of course Italian. I would go so far as to opine that were it not for garlic, escargot would remain merely snails. So, let's talk a little about this disrupter of romance.

Garlic, or Allium Sativum, is a member of the Amaryllis family. Not surprisingly, it is a cousin to other members of that family, leaks, onions and shallots. The most commonly used portion of the garlic plant is that which is found underground, the bulb or head (although some recipes do call for the green sprouts). Each head of garlic is made up of a number of bulblets called cloves. The head and cloves are covered in a paper-like skin. Garlic is generally odorless, until the cloves are crushed or chopped, breaking the garlic cells and releasing the classic smell and flavor. Garlic's use spans many centuries, and it is posited by some that the Egyptian pyramids were built by slaves on a diet of bread, water and garlic.

Garlic is reputed to have a number of health benefits, including fighting heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. There is some indication that garlic has a low level antibiotic effect and is helpful in warding off colds and infections. Modern science is beginning to find evidence that substantiates old wives' tales about the medicinal effects of these odiferous bulbs. Notwithstanding the negative impact on romance, Americans consume some 250 Million pounds annually. There is no proof that garlic has any effect on vampires, and it is strongly suggested that this use is merely an urban legend.

The smell of garlic is most intense when raw, as it is found in Caesar salad dressing and similar preparations. Certain compatriots of mine share in household restrictions on our enjoyment of a thick steak at the Schvitz topped with a huge scoop of minced garlic and broiled. Disapproving household members have alleged (though never proven) that the garlic smell can last for three days, altoids notwithstanding. Sautéing can somewhat reduce the effects, and generally speaking, the more cooking involved, the more the garlic odor is reduced.

All that being said, I must confess to being a lover of garlic, despite its negative side effects. I find it difficult to believe that you can ever use too much and am certainly not deterred from a recipe just because it's titled "chicken with 20 cloves of garlic". Why stop at 20? Garlic stuffed olives, Chinese pork with garlic sauce, garlicky kosher dills, crispy garlic bread- .I love them all. But, if I must choose a favorite, it would have to be any preparation with roasted garlic.

Roasting garlic does something magical to the Allium Sativum. The sometimes pungent taste becomes much milder, with nutty elements. The sugars present in this bulb, like its onion cousins, caramelize lending a wonderful sweetness. Traditional roasting requires only the removal of the outer skin of the head, and slicing off the top (not root) end. The result is a golden brown bunch of cloves, that can separated off the head and "squeezed" out onto crispy bread rounds and spread like butter. The problem is, like anything this good, there simply won't be enough. So, I like to take a dozen heads, divide them into individual cloves, trim, peel and roast them, en masse, drizzled liberally with olive oil. Once cooked, these delightful little nuggets of sweet flavor can be stored, covered in olive oil, in a sealed container in the refrigerator where they'll keep a month or more, ever at the ready to add a new dimension to your tired old gravy or your boring mashed potatoes.

The key to successful roasted garlic is to cook slowly, at a lower temperature, which allows the natural sugars in the root to caramelize, as the cloves soften, rather than the browning that occurs at a higher temperature when sautéing. It is this slow reduction and concentration of the sugars that produce the sweet and nutty flavor that causes roasted garlic to develop the distinctive character. And while the unique garlic taste (and smell) is certainly present, the roasting reduces the pungency otherwise present. While there are a good many gadgets on the market designed to aid in the roasting process, from garlic bulb shaped electric roasters, to terra cotta ovenware, there is nothing more needed than a small ramekin that can be covered with tin foil. The resulting flavors will be a culinary treat that wakes up your taste buds. You may find you enjoy roasted garlic so much that you'll even risk consuming it on a first date.

Roasted Garlic recipe

one (or more) heads of garlic: be sure to use fresh heads, avoid any that have begun
1 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil per head of garlic
freshly ground black pepper (coarse grind)
a thread or two of saffron (optional)

Remove the outer papery skin of the head of garlic. With a sharp knife, trim off the top of the garlic head. (This will "open" one end of each clove, so that the roasted garlic can later be "squeezed" out). Place the head, root side down, in a small baking ramekin. Drizzle the olive oil over the top of the head, sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and salt and add a thread or two of saffron (if desired). Tightly cover the dish with foil and bake for 1 hour at 275, or until the cloves are very soft, with a buttery consistency and a caramel colored golden brown. Allow to cool.

To serve, each individual clove can be separated from the head, and the roasted garlic gently squeezed from the individual clove's skin. The roasted garlic makes a wonderful addition to soups, sauces, rice and mashed potatoes, or try it spread on French bread, sprinkle with parmesan reggiano, and broiled till golden brown.
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Volume 2, Issue 6, Posted 12:12 PM, 03.11.06