Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Garlic

Friday, December 17, 2010

You love it or hate it. Vampires are supposed to hate it, but admittedly we like it. ;) The flavor profile ranges from pungently spicy to sweetly caramelized. It can be eaten on its own or most likely, as a flavor builder in various dishes. People have even made ice cream with it.

Garlic comes from the Alliaceae family which includes onions, shallots, leeks, and chives. Most notably, we eat the bulb of the garlic plant (pictured above) which houses the individual cloves. However, the sprout of the garlic plant that looks like a very thick chive is also edible and quite delicious, offering a tougher texture than the tender chive, but with a decidedly background flavor of garlic rather than onion. These sprouts tend to really shoot up in spring and summer, so if you can find them at your local farmers markets make sure to pick some up. They're great chopped up raw in salads or with pastas, or garnishes in soups and stews.

There are many variations of garlic that can be found worldwide. The most common one we're used to in America is the European garlic. We've seen some super-sized garlic called Elephant Garlic, which is actually leek related as opposed to garlic on steroids. Which is a relief frankly. Garlic grows wildly all over the world, but the largest cultivater is China where garlic as we know it is thought to have originated. Garlic can be planted year-round and in any climate, making it a very popular ingredient in many cultures throughout the world. If you plant it in your own garden or are thinking about it, know garlic is a natural repellent of rabbits and moles so you may want to do an outline border of your vegetable garden with garlic!

Garlic is one of those ancient Everything Foods. You can use it raw or cooked. Take the clove and literally chop it up and add it to a vinaigrette raw or dishes to cook and help build flavors. You can take a clove and rub it on warmed bread to get a hint of garlic flavor from the abundant oils inside if you want to scale back on that pungent raw garlic flavor. You can flavor oils by slowly heating the garlic with olive oil for example and then letting it come to room temperature. The oil can be stored up to 2 weeks -- longer than that if you're making your own oil and you'll run into issues as a particularly nasty bacteria called clostridium could develop, which is a big no-no too if you're pregnant. So to be on the safe side, consume your garlic-infused oils within a week of making them.

So where does garlic come from? Most historians seem to point to southwestern Asia and China, although garlic has been found and mentioned as a steady ingredient used in Egyptian cooking and even in the Bible! Ancient Greek and Roman texts also write extensively on garlic's use as both a food flavoring agent as well as an antiseptic for wounds in the Roman army, and a medicine to treat various ailments from low energy to digestion problems. And the ancients were on to something. Modern studies have proven over and over again that large consumption of garlic on a regular basis (as say part of normal diet) has been successful in warding off heart disease and cancers. The antibacterial and antifungal properties are also used as a natural medicine to treat common wounds today much as the Roman army did thousands of years ago. I'll tell you, after a nasty cut on my finger that kept getting re-irritated over and over again by cooking, cleaning with household chemicals, etc. and it got to the point where no doctor-prescribed cream did anything. Finally in a desperate attempt I rubbed raw garlic on it. And although admittedly it stung like hell, the wound was healed! This said, some people are quite allergic to garlic and the whole onion family. Being such a strong plant full of intense oils, some people can develop digestive issues in response to the super concentrated oils and in some rare cases, even stop breathing! So if you're sensitive to the garlic, don't go sucking on whole cloves just yet.

Medicinal and historical purposes aside, it's a hell of a tasty ingredient to work with in the kitchen. Often found in Mediterranean, South American, European, Indian, African, and Asian cuisine, most likely you've eaten it and worked with it.

Here's a very simple recipe showcasing garlic as the star of the show. It's a simple pasta The Hubsters taught me to make when we first were dating. I added some spicy red pepper flakes to really elevate this dish into spicy stratosphere. It's very intense so if you like spicy and garlic then this is your dish. It comes together in 10 minutes (the time it takes to cook the pasta) and can be served piping hot or at room temperature. It's one of my go-to sick dishes and I swear I feel instantly better if I have a cold and eat this.

There aren't a lot of ingredients here so everything must be in its prime, fresh, and best quality you can find. The garlic needs to be fresh, the basil needs to be crisp, the pepper flakes need not to be old, and the Parmesan needs to be salty and imported. I like De Cecco spaghetti no. 11 for this dish the best.


Garlic Spaghettini
1 lb spaghettini
1 head garlic, cloves removed, peeled, smashed and roughly minced
1/2 Vidalia onion, peeled and finely chopped (or Maui onion)
good quality extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chiffonade
imported Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Add a good handful of salt to the boiling water to season the pasta, then add the pasta all at once. Give it a stir and let cook for 11 minutes or according to package directions.

While pasta cooks, heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper to taste, and saute on medium-low heat until just beginning to caramelized. Add the garlic all at once and the red pepper flakes and cook another 2 minutes.

Add the spaghettini straight from the pot of water to the saute pan (no need to drain -- you actually want a little of the pasta water to help thicken the sauce a little bit). Gently toss the pasta into the onion-garlic mixture and turn off heat. Add more olive oil on top, the basil, and some freshly grated parmesan and toss again. Portion out into bowls and then top with shavings of Parmesan. Serve.

Yes I said a handful of salt for a big pot of water for the pasta. Most people forget you need to season the pasta too. We think that the sauce does that -- it does not. The way the gluten works in the pasta it creates like a wall that shuts out everything from coming inside of it. The only time frame you have to season the pasta itself is when it's at the dry stage and then reconstituting to cooked -- in other words, when it's soaking up the water. So add your salt then.

Now my handful is about 3 Tbsp worth of kosher salt. Some of you have larger hands. Basically the more water the more salt. In fact, most Italians have a rule that the pasta water needs to be the same taste of sea water. Yes, I said that right: the water you boil you pasta in needs to taste like water from the ocean itself. So yes, I mean a hanful of salt.

You'd be surprised how much better your pasta dishes will taste after this simple step! Again, cooking well is about techniques like this, not much else!


Virginia said...

Question - is that really a handful of salt to the pasta of water? Thanks!!

Mishy said...

Yes. I mean a handful. I am not joking. :) Remember: OCEAN WATER for pasta!