Flash in the Pan 

The garlic lifestyle

Many claim to love garlic, though you wouldn't know it by looking at the crap in their kitchens: cluster bulbs of odd-sized, shriveled cloves, some of them sprouting, with wispy, sticky peels and caustic, one-dimensional flavor.

My love for garlic is deep. I eat top quality garlic every day, and I haven't paid for it since the 1990s, when I started growing it myself. Since then I've cultivated eight different patches in three different states. My annual harvest brings me pleasure every day, from the sight of its rose and white peels to its size, body and sharp, sweet flavor.

My average bulb of garlic is about twice the size of yours, if you buy it at the store. And my big bulbs have only four or five cloves, with thick wrappers that peel easier than a prom dress. One or two cloves will do for most meals, unless I'm cooking garlic as vegetable.

Part of the joy of growing garlic is watching your harvest change with the seasons. Freshly pulled garlic is like a glowing white earth pearl. A few weeks after harvest, the garlic loses some of that edgy vitality. The flavor mellows and sweetens as the body settles from swollen to rock solid, and the peels that encase each clove dry into hard paper.

If stored in a cool, dark, ventilated space, my garlic will keep well into the following spring. By May, the cloves will loosen in their jackets as traces of green sprout begin to form.

Meanwhile, cloves from the same generation, planted last October, have already grown thigh-high in this year's patch. Soon they will send up curly-cue flowers, which I will eat as fresh garlic, and use as barter for meals at the local gastropub.

Each clove, planted in fall, becomes a head of garlic the following summer. The patch lies dormant all winter, grows in springtime, flowers in summer and soon after is ready for harvesting, while a new patch is prepared.

Some of my best garlic patches have grown in lawn converted to garden. All of these lawns were conquered by covering the target area with black plastic, weighting the edges against the wind and letting the lawn fry underneath for six to eight weeks in summer sun. Then you roll back the tarp and enjoy the soft, empty dirt, a fertile, wormy heaven where grass roots used to be, now eager for your shovel.

One trick for finding a good strain to grow locally—I grow Romanian Red, which you can buy online, and does great in the Rocky Mountains—is to go to your farmers' market and buy the best-looking garlic you can find. By selecting something kick-ass from a local farmer, you'll be assured you're working with a variety that likes your home climate.

There are two types of garlic: softneck garlic, which is the vast majority of commercial grocery store garlic, and hardneck garlic, which is what garlic snobs such as myself eat. Commercial growers prefer softneck because it can handle more abuse in transport and storage, and many large growers complain about the fact that hardnecks flower, and the flowers have to be hand-picked to let the bulbs grow large. Hardneck snobs prize those same flowers, as well as the cloves, which are bigger, easier to peel and usually more flavorful than softneck cloves. But because commercial growers prefer softneck, that's what you find at the store.

When shopping for garlic to eat or plant, you can tell the difference between hardneck and softneck by feeling the stem in the middle of the bulb. A floppy stem means softneck, a rigid stem means hardneck. Another clue is that hardneck cloves are arranged evenly around the stem like pie wedges, while softneck cloves, of all different sizes, are jumbled together seemingly at random.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Growing garlic never gets old. It follows a satisfying rhythm that makes me a little more native to my place of residence, and the process always teaches me something. This year is no exception.

I used to keep my garlic mulched with straw in the spring and summer, with a soaker hose under the straw. This is a slick way to keep weeds at bay and maximize water efficiency, as the straw minimizes evaporation and stops the weeds.

This year I've switched to flood irrigation of my patch, which has caused me to revisit my time, during my first decade, as an amateur hydrologist playing in the ditch. Straw mulch would clog my irrigation canals, so instead of mulching I've been planting shade-tolerant plants in and alongside the canals, between rows of garlic. As these other plants grow, they shade the patch dirt, acting as a living mulch and discouraging evaporation. I've harvested spinach and lettuce from the polyculture garlic patch so far. When I harvest my garlic in June, the remaining jungle of living mulch will emerge from the shadows. Peas will climb the corn; broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beets, Brussels sprouts and onions will produce fall crops.

Sometimes, during the final spring weeks before the garlic flowers emerge, I'll take the remaining 10 or 20 bulbs from last year's harvest and make a Brazilian garlic-and-salt paste called alho muchado (awl-yu mu-chaa-doe). I peel the cloves, add salt and mash with a mortar and pestle. Brazilian cooks make big batches of this paste and store it in the fridge, where it lasts for months—in fact, the flavor improves with time. When cooking, they dole it by the spoonful, filling the room with a lovely aroma when it hits the hot pan.

So if you think you're a garlic lover, maybe it's time to live the dream by planting your own patch. If you grow enough to become garlic-independent, it's a liberating feeling, kind of like having a freezer full of deer meat. Every day, the sight of your beautiful homegrown garlic will make you smile.

In September I'll write about planting. Until then, here's your homework assignment: Prepare your patch for planting, using a black tarp if you're converting part of your lawn. And, find a good variety of garlic to plant.

Ask Ari: Meat science

Q: Dear Flash,

What is the science behind brining? I am referring to the supposed tenderizing effect, not for the sole purpose of adding flavor. A hypertonic solution [that means liquid with a lot of dissolved material, like saltwater] should draw fluid out of the meat, making it drier and perhaps tougher. My wife brined a nice turkey last Thanksgiving, and I believe she proved my doubt, in that it was okay, but dry. And it totally ruined the stuffing! Can soaking meat in salt solutions truly tenderize? How?

—Whined and Brined

A: The science behind brining boils down to the fact that water and salt can cross cell membranes, but other molecules cannot. When meat is placed in salt water, a trans-membrane dance begins. Water from the meat flows out, drawn by the high concentration of salt in the brine. This movement of water from a hypotonic solution (low amounts of dissolved materials) to a hypertonic solution is called osmosis. This, at first glance, would appear to dry out the meat. Meanwhile, the salt in the brine flows into the meat.

When the salt enters the meat, it breaks down proteins in the cells, and these broken-down proteins make the meat more hypertonic. The broken proteins stay in the cells, since they can't cross the cell membranes, and this causes water to flow back into the meat, via osmosis.

After this little dance the meat will have absorbed both water and salt, making it tasty and juicy.

It's possible that your wife's turkey didn't brine long enough for the salt to do its work on the proteins in the meat. So the water that initially left the meat in favor of the salty brine never had a chance to return.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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