Flash in the Pan 

Robbing the garlic cradle

As you walk the farmers’ markets in midsummer, it’s common to spot new garlic among the many fresh offerings of summer. Unlike the cured garlic that you see in stores, new garlic has only recently been harvested, and is still metabolizing. It’s a living food, teeming with active enzymes and full of vitality.

New garlic peels more easily than cured garlic, because the wrappers around each clove are still damp and fleshy, having yet to harden into dry paper. Emerging from that fleshy cocoon, the cloves are a bright, virginal white that seem to emanate light. They remind me of fresh scallops. When you cook new garlic it turns translucent.

New garlic also has a more immediate, fiery flavor than cured garlic. But unlike the fire of a hot pepper, a bite of garlic requires far less commitment, retreating almost as quickly as it arrived. And if you don’t want the fire, the taste of new garlic—like all garlic—can be mellowed with cooking. But even when mellow, those glowing chunks stand out. They’re a treat when they happen upon your tongue, and are sought after by those who mine the bottom of the bowl for goodies. Indeed, new garlic is about more than flavor. It’s a vegetable. A centerpiece. A substantial component of your dish.

One easy way to spot new garlic is that the bulbs are usually still attached to a long stem—unlike supermarket garlic, which is just a bulb with the stem cut off. Growers leave the stem attached as part of the curing process; it serves as a conduit to wick water away from the bulb. Once cured, the stems are usually snipped off so that the bulbs take up less space for shipping and storing.

By the way, gardeners: if you have garlic planted in your garden, it’s time to pull it out now.

And if you want to plant some garlic for next year, start thinking about it now. Garlic is planted in October, so pretty soon you will need to figure out where to plant it, and prepare the ground accordingly. The best place to grow garlic is where your useless lawn currently resides—especially if it gets good sun. Garlic looks really pretty along your sidewalk, like a big field of lilies. Garlic is, in fact, a member of the lily family. And if dogs piss on your curbside garlic patch, it doesn’t matter, because the good part is under the ground. If they jump in your patch, however, it does matter. Bad dog.

When October rolls around, it will be too late to convert a piece of your lawn into garlic ground without a heroic, and likely doomed, effort. But if you cover the ground right now with black plastic (from the hardware or garden store), by the end of the summer the sod will be gone and the ground will have effortlessly converted itself to fertile worm shit, ideal for planting. By this time next year you will have your own crop of new garlic.

However you acquire it, you have many options for cooking new garlic. I like a dish that presents the garlic, rather than just uses it. This inevitably means large pieces. You can throw whole cloves into just about anything: lasagna, soup, baked or broiled meat or fish. When that clove finds your mouth you will be glad.

Oven-roasting at about 300 degrees is a popular presentation, basting often with olive oil until the cloves are soft. Squeeze the soft garlic from the cloves onto just about anything, or straight into your mouth.

I really like cooking new garlic with oyster sauce. So here’s a stir-fry recipe that works well and serves four.

At the farmers’ market, buy 2 to 4 bulbs new garlic, 1-1/2 pounds snap peas and a nice head of cauliflower (substitute other fresh veggies if you prefer).

Go home, boil a big pot of salted water and blanch the peas for 10 seconds and the cauliflower (broken into florets) for 20 seconds. Immediately plunge the blanched items into ice water to lock in the crisp and color, then drain and set aside. Thinly slice your cloves of new garlic lengthwise, so they look like little guitar picks. Leave a few cloves whole.

Fry the chopped pieces of a slice or two of bacon in 2 tablespoons sunflower oil over medium heat (skip the bacon if you must). As it gets crispy, add some thinly sliced ginger and your whole garlic cloves. After about three minutes, add 1/4 cup peanuts and stir. Then add your sliced garlic. When the slices turn translucent, add the cauliflower and the peas and stir-fry. As soon as the veggies are hot, add 1/4 to 1/3 cup oyster sauce. If at any point—before or after the oyster sauce addition—the pan starts to dry up, deglaze with white wine or cider vinegar.

Present your new garlic stir-fry with rice or quinoa.


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