The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Glorious Garlic

Facts and Myths About the "Stinking Rose"

"It is no exaggeration to say that peace and happiness start, geographically, where garlic is being used in preparation of food." – Xavier-Marcel Boulestin, French chef, restaurateur and cookbook author –

What a marvelous creation is garlic. And, according to myth, it's been around since the Creation. Ancient myth holds that when Satan was cast out of Eden, garlic grew from the imprint of his left foot as it touched the Earth while onions sprung from his right footprint.

Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, noted that the Egyptians invoked garlic and onions as deities when taking oaths. (“I swear by Almighty Garlic?”) Garlic also served as Egyptian currency. You could buy a healthy male slave for fifteen pounds of garlic. And garlic was found scattered about in King Tut's tomb.

Greek athletes, Greek and Roman soldiers, and Viking warriors all munched on garlic for strength and courage.

And everybody knows about garlic's powers over evil. Garlic hung over doors warded off evil spirits. Werewolves were kept at bay when garlic was worn about the neck. And, speaking of necks, you know how vampires feel about the stuff. In psychological parlance, they are alliumphobic.

For those not possessed by an overwhelming fear of garlic, National Garlic Day is celebrated on April 19. (Although it has never been proclaimed as such by either presidential or congressional decree. It just is, darn it!)

So what is garlic and where did it come from?

Scientifically speaking, allium sativum is a species of Alliaceae, making it a relative of the onion, shallot, leek, and chive. Botanically, it hangs on the same family tree as the lily, so nobody is really sure why it's called “the stinking rose.” Best guess comes from garlic researchers Stephen Fulder and John Blackwood who posit that a French physician, Henri Leclerc, coined the term around 1918 from a translation of the Greek term “skaion rodon,” and its contraction “skorodon,” which he interpreted as “rose puante,” French for “stinky rose.” (Don't you feel smarter knowing that?)

In English, the word garlic comes from the Old English garleac, meaning "spear leek." In Italian, garlic is aglio, sprung obviously from its Latin root, allium.

As to its origins, most experts believe that modern domestic garlic descends from a species that once grew wild in central and southwestern Asia. Even today, China is the world's garlic capital, responsible for the production of about 77% of the planet's garlic. (Sorry, Gilroy, California. But more about that later.) Garlic eventually made its way west thanks to Crusaders and travelers like Marco Polo, who mentioned the many uses of garlic in some of the records of his journeys. Nowadays, there are more than three hundred varieties of garlic grown all over the world.

Medicinally, garlic is said to be able to cure everything but a broken heart. Actually, considering its alleged benefits in lowering cholesterol, maybe it can do hearts some good, too. Believers assert that garlic can ward off both the common cold and cancer. Garlic does have antibacterial properties and was used as an antiseptic in World Wars I and II. Continuing studies disprove some of garlic's miraculous claims every day, while others validate them.

Nutritionally, garlic is a little powerhouse containing numerous B vitamins as well as vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc, and protein.

The more “out there” uses of garlic include rubbing it on painful corns and applying it to lips and noses as a sunscreen.

Of course, the most common and well-known application of garlic is culinary. Although Isabella Mary Beeton, in her once world-famous “Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management,” noted "the smell of this plant is generally considered offensive, and it is the most acrimonious in its taste," her opinion has been resoundingly rejected in kitchens around the globe. Admittedly a late-comer to American kitchens – the use of garlic was limited to ethnic cuisines until well into the 1940s – the bulbous herb has long been a staple in Mediterranean cooking and is used generously as a seasoning in traditional Asian and African dishes. Although a presence in various other European diets, the first cuisine that comes to most people's minds when they hear the word “garlic” is Italian. And that's really a misnomer.

Italian cooks are actually quite conservative in their use of garlic. It's a staple ingredient, to be sure, but not in the quantities generally ascribed by popular myth. In fact, in many Italian dishes, while you might add numerous cloves of garlic to the initial stages, you remove much of it after it has lent its flavor to the dish. The image of Italians practically gobbling down whole heads of garlic as a snack are quite fallacious, despite the bigoted assertions of uncouth Americans who once referred to garlic as “Italian perfume.”

On that score, garlic cloves themselves don't really have any odor. Stick your face in the garlic bin at the grocery store and you won't smell much of anything. The pungent qualities of garlic manifest themselves when the garlic cells are broken. Chemically, garlic contains alliin, which is a sulfoxide derived from the amino acid cysteine. When you cut or crush a clove of garlic, an enzyme called allinaise is released. Allinaise reacts on alliin, converting it into allicin, an organosulfur compound. The more you cut or crush the garlic, the more of this sulfur molecule is released resulting in a stronger odor and flavor. Hence, mincing a clove of garlic will have a more powerful effect than merely cutting one in half. (By the way, these sulfur molecules can be absorbed into the bloodstream and the lungs, escaping through exhalation and perspiration, resulting in garlic breath or garlicky smelling sweat. The degree of absorption and release is dependent upon individual body chemistry.)

So let's go buy some garlic. First of all, it is important to realize the difference between a head or bulb of garlic and a clove of garlic. I know of more than one novice cook who failed to differentiate when a recipe called for three or four cloves of garlic, and wound up with something quite unanticipated – to say nothing of inedible.

A bulb or head of garlic (the terms are interchangeable) usually contains ten to fifteen individual garlic cloves. (Twenty is not unheard of.) The individual cloves are covered in a dry, papery skin of a pinkish to purplish color. The entire head is covered in a dry, papery skin that is usually white or silvery, sometimes streaked or tinted with purple. Garlic heads with a purplish cast are just a different variety, one which many cooks consider more flavorful. In any case, neither the inner nor outer skins are edible.

Bigger is not always better. Generally speaking, the smaller the clove the more intense the flavor. Something sold as elephant garlic is not really garlic at all. It is a member of the allium family, but more closely related to leeks. Not to say that it doesn't taste good, but it is not a substitute for a true garlic.

Look for medium size heads that are firm and dry with plenty of papery covering. Avoid heads that show signs of sprouting. These are past their prime and were probably not dried properly to begin with. If you get a head of garlic home and find that there are green shoots sprouting within the individual cloves, don't panic and toss the whole head. These cloves are still quite useable. Just remove the green shoot as they can be a little bitter-tasting.

As with all ingredients for cooking, buy the best garlic you can afford. “Deals” on multiple heads of garlic in a bag are not always the bargains they may seem. After all, growers have to do something with the culls.

Once you get your garlic home, store it in a cool, dry, dark place. They make neat little terra-cotta pots for garlic storage. I have one. But all you really need is a cool, dry, dark place. This means away from the kitchen window, away from the stove, and away from the sink. Unbroken garlic bulbs will keep for up to three or four months. Individual cloves will keep for about five to ten days.

Working with whole, fresh garlic is really pretty easy. Just strip away some of the outer skin from the bulb and pop out as many cloves as you need. As noted, not all garlic cloves are the same size and the smaller ones tend to be stronger. That's why most recipes give you some wiggle room in the number of cloves you'll need. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be better able to judge quantities.

Next up, you need to peel the skin away from the clove. This is really a lot easier than some people make it out to be. Entrepreneurs have developed a garlic peeler that's quite effective. Sold under a dozen different brand names, it's basically a rubber tube that you stick a clove of garlic in and rub it around until the skin comes off. It works well, but so does the heel of your hand and the flat side of a chef's knife. I know of one chef who keeps a “garlic rock” close at hand. It's just a rock that he picked up somewhere, but he uses it exclusively to crush and peel garlic.

Garlic presses are okay if you want to crush the bejeebers out of your garlic. Design plays a big part in the effectiveness of these devices. Some people swear by presses while others swear at them. I have one that I seldom use because I also have a chef's knife with which I can achieve nearly the same results. Take your pick.

Some recipes call for whole cloves, some for cloves cut in half, some for sliced, some for minced or crushed. Remember, the finer the chop the stronger the taste. Whole cooked garlic has a fairly mild, almost sweet taste, especially in the case of a whole head of roasted garlic. Sliced garlic imparts a nice full flavor and can be easily removed from a dish if desired. Crushed garlic has the strongest taste of all and is pretty much fully incorporated in cooking. Garlic mellows the longer it is cooked. Garlic added at the end of cooking will give a stronger taste than garlic added earlier.

Garlic overcooks easily. It can go from sweet and mellow to bitter and nasty in an instant. When sautéing in oil, make sure the oil isn't too hot and that the garlic doesn't brown. A light golden hue is okay, but if it turns brown, just toss it and start over. Minced garlic usually cooks up in less than a minute over medium heat. A good rule to follow when sautéing onions and garlic in a recipe; start the onions first. When they become translucent, add the garlic.

Fresh garlic is available year round, but is freshest in the Spring and Summer months. Some people who think fresh garlic is messy and inconvenient buy other forms like powder, flakes, puree, and minced garlic packed in oil. None of these are a true substitute for fresh garlic, but the most useful among them is garlic powder. Powder. Not salt. Garlic salt is a seasoning to be used on something like bread or French fries. If you want to add garlic flavor to food as it's cooking, use garlic powder. The former is salt with garlic powder added. The latter is made from dried powdered garlic cloves. You'll never get the same flavor out of garlic powder that you'll get from fresh garlic, but it does have some practical uses and deserves a place in your pantry. The flakes and purees and minces in oil are convenience items and are generally a waste of money.

Just so you know:

1 head of garlic = (about) 10 to 15 cloves.
1 small garlic clove = 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic = 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1 medium garlic clove = 1 teaspoon minced garlic = 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 large garlic clove = 2 teaspoons minced garlic = 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 extra-large garlic clove = 1 tablespoon minced garlic = 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Oh yeah. I mentioned Gilroy, didn't I? The majority of garlic grown in the United States comes from California. Much of the garlic grown in California comes from Gilroy, a city in Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay area. Gilroy holds a huge festival every July celebrating their principle crop and have proclaimed themselves to be the “Garlic Capital of the World.” Not so, of course. Not even close. They do have the distinction of being home to the factory that processes more garlic than any other factory in the world, but I guess “Garlic Processing Capital of the World” just doesn't have the same punch. At any rate, if you're up for some fun and entertainment, as well as some garlic flavored ice cream, a garlic braiding workshop, celebrity chefs demonstrating garlic cooking techniques, and lots more garlicky gimmickry – all presided over by the Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen – head off to Gilroy in July.

Me? I'm headed off to Publix. I think garlic is on sale this week.

Buon appetito!

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