Garlic: Worth the Wait
For some weeks now people have been asking about when we might have garlic at the markets. “Soon,” we tell them, “It’s just been harvested, looks incredible, but still has to cure for a couple of weeks.” But when it comes to garlic, “soon” is never soon enough.
In the absence of any displayed for sale, customers have tried to purchase heads from the Cooking School’s pantry and even whole, untrimmed, uncured, and unbeautiful plants hidden in bins beneath the tables (our seconds, which we try to make last from now into the winter). They walk around the market, two-foot-long dried stalks conspicuously jutting out of their canvas bags, and never more dejected than when they find out that, No, those aren’t for sale. And for good reason: cooking without alliums is hell. And cooking without garlic is that hell’s flavorless ninth circle. For me, and many of our customers, garlic is a fundamental component of delicious food, as essential as salt, vinegar, or sugar.
Writing in Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain agrees:
Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Please treat your garlic with respect...Nothing will permeate your food more irrevocably and irreparably than burnt or rancid garlic. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.
While he generously defines “misuse,” he’s a little less verbose with the “handled correctly” bit (though the omission above does include some choice advice about Goodfellas-style garlic slicing).
Handled correctly: A clove rubbed raw on some toasted bread slicked with oil lends a wicked bite, befitting of its name in Spanish, un diente de ajo - a tooth of garlic. Drowned and browned in oil, then simmered slowly for hours with tomatoes, the unselfish allium gives it’s all, yielding sweetness and aroma as it disappears into the sauce. And a whole head roasted, perhaps next to a chicken, perfumes the air as it becomes golden, fruity, complex, and as spreadable as butter.
But, while it’s forthcoming with its flavor once it winds up in your home, the path to garlic-y bliss is a long one. From planting, to harvesting, to curing, garlic’s full clove-to-clove life cycle is about 9-months, and began last fall.
As consumers, we tend not to think about this temporal arc of farming. We visit the market on occasion, maybe weekly for a CSA pickup, and produce appears from one week to the next as if by magic: No zucchini this weekend but we’ll be harvesting it Wednesday; Today we have lettuces, though possibly not next week; the garlic has just been harvested, looks incredible, but still has to cure for a couple of weeks. Eventually - and positively! - we become attuned to the seasons, understanding that new-garlic, after it’s month-long cure, can be expected around July.
But even the hyper-seasonal cook might overlook the number of hours (thousands) which went into the produce in his reusable bags. Our farmers, on the other hand, understand that as much as summer is the season for garlic, so is autumn, when we pray for tillable nutrient-rich soil in which to plant . And so is winter, which reaches its icy fingers deep into the soil, prodding the garlic to divide into robust heads. And spring too, which warms and revitalizes the garlic, encouraging scapes, shoots, flowers and all manner of mild garlic-y green.
Finally, summer harvest: the end of a months long journey which culminates in a weeks long cure (a drying period which will preserve the garlic for use, hopefully for the duration of the coming year and subsequent garlic-cycle). And an awareness of which make the spoils all the sweeter...or, in the case of garlic, pleasantly sharp.