Good time to find fresh garlic
Garlic is one of the oldest and most widespread plants harvested for both its medicinal benefits as well as its unique flavor. Originating in Asia, the current forms of garlic evolved from a wild allium variety that was domesticated close to 6,000 years ago. Ancient trading parties introduced garlic to Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt, where it has been found in pyramid tomb chambers.
Ancient Greeks embraced the pungent bulb for its reputation as a source of strength and stamina, feeding it to athletes participating in early Olympic games. Practitioners of Chinese and Indian medicine chose garlic as an antibiotic for infectious diseases. Through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans relied on the health benefits of garlic.
In the 19th century, researchers were able to prove garlic's germ-killing attributes, making it valuable as an antiseptic and a popular cure for dysentery during both world wars. Modern research has demonstrated several positive effects of garlic's chemical compounds, which include reducing cardiovascular risk factors, lessening cancer risk, and providing antioxidant and antimicrobial effects.
With over 450 different types of garlic, which is the best choice?
The first distinction is whether the garlic is softneck or hardneck. This refers to the center of the garlic bulb, where the hardneck varieties produce a tough, woody stalk, while the stalk of the softneck is pliant.
The latter is the type sold in grocery stores, usually with its stalk completely trimmed.
Softneck garlic has a mild flavor and tight, papery skins covering the cloves. The subtle flavor differences in hardneck garlic varieties are often compared to wine which reflects the regional soil characteristics and weather.
The flavor of hardneck garlic is deeper and richer, especially when roasted; it has a hot bite when eaten raw.
This is a good time of year to find fresh garlic at roadside stands and farmers markets. Last weekend, Hattie's Garden offered lovely purple-striped hardneck garlic. To see if we could taste the difference, we roasted both an ordinary softneck and a purple-striped hardneck clove (see photo).
We wrapped the cloves together in a piece of foil and drizzled them with a bit of olive oil. After an hour in the oven, the aroma of garlic filled the kitchen - subtle and sweet. Opening the foil packet released an intense burst of garlic steam. We squished the meltingly tender garlic flesh onto slices of toasted baguette, and yes, there was a difference between the two types.
The softneck was slightly sharp and lighter in taste than the purple-striped hardneck which had a complex blend of sweet and rich flavor notes. Of course, the next question, since we now had a supply, is what to do with roasted garlic. If it's fresh out of the oven, it's a delightful appetizer, spread like butter on crusty bread. If it's on hand while you're making something else, consider the suggestions below.
I've included instructions for roasting a head of garlic. Some prefer to cut off the top; as you can see from the photo, we skipped that step - either approach will work, as the skins easily release the soft roasted garlic flesh. And, as for nomenclature, the entire head or bulb is sometimes erroneously called a clove, but that term actually refers to the individual sections.
1 head of garlic
1/2 t olive oil
Preheat oven to 400F. Remove the papery outer leaves from the garlic head, leaving the cloves intact.
Cut about 1/3 inch straight across the top of the bulb (optional). Set the bulb on a piece of aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil.
Tightly seal the packet and place directly on the rack in preheated oven. Roast for 40 to 45 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly before removing from foil and squeezing flesh from the skin into a small bowl. Mash with a fork and use as desired.