Jun 20, 2010

Love letter to the bulb

A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat.
–– old New York proverb

Let's talk a little about my favorite ingredient, aglio.

Garlic {Allium sativum} is a fundamental pillar of Italian cooking, but up until the beginning of the 1950s, some seriously garlic-challenged folks overseas called it “Bronx vanilla.” Other diner lingo names for garlic included the derogatory “halitosis” and “Italian perfume.”

Highly reassessed element in the recent Italian food renaissance, the Noble Bulb has finally re-blossomed as the star in most home kitchens worldwide. Related to the lily family—along with leeks, onions, and chives—garlic, from the Old English word garleac, owes its powerful aroma to sulphur-based compounds. As a base for most Italian dishes, it sensually flavors cooking oils and other preparations, extracting the best side of almost any food.

Some culinarians use a garlic crusher, I don't.

Losing precious juices and splaying the charming clove is a pity. For instance, chef Anthony Bourdain (my boyfriend in many fantasies) calls garlic presses 'abominations' and in his genius exposé memoir Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, advises,

"Don't put it through a press. I don't know what that junk is that squeezes out of the end of those things, but it ain't garlic."

Personally, I find the delicious fragrance left on my fingers after chopping or mincing garlic, one of the most aphrodisiac aromas in nature. If the repercussions of eating garlic present a fastidious breath issue, do like the garlic-loving Middle Eastern, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cultures do: always keep a pinch of fennel seeds in your pocket. Chewing on them refreshes and works far better than breath mints.

There have been encyclopedias written about garlic; and come July, the California garlic-growing capital of the world, Gilroy, celebrates the Bulb with an annual garlic festival. The famous Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, serves an all-garlic menu in honor of the "stinky rose," with everything from a garlic-laced antipasto to garlic ice cream. The same happens at The Stinking Rose Restaurant in San Francisco. 

braids of garlic in an Italian market

When buying aglio, look for bulbs that are plump and compact with several layers of dry, papery husk. A heavy, firm bulb indicates that the garlic will be fresh and flavorful, whereas a bulb that’s too light is probably old. Avoid damp or soft bulbs and those that have begun to sprout, as well as any that have dark, powdery patches under the skin, which are the signs of a common mold that will eventually decay the flesh. Remove the bitter greenish core inside the garlic clove to avoid a slightly bitter taste in your final cooked preparation.

Garlic has a tendency to sprout, which diminishes its pungency and flavor. To prevent this, keep garlic hung in a braid or stored in a loosely covered container and put it in a cool, dark place away from sunlight and heat.

Tip: To easily peel garlic, separate the cloves from the bulb and place them on a cutting board. Lay the flat side of a kitchen knife on top of one clove at a time. Tap the knife with a closed fist. A fairly gentle impact is all that's required to split the peels without smashing the clove. Also, be careful not to burn garlic when sautéeing; it will turn bitter.

I like to rub a fresh garlic clove on lightly charred slices of crusty bread for bruschetta, enjoy it immensely added in tomato salads, used in pasta condiments, liberally sliced over cinnamon-dusted oranges, minced in seafood recipes, or mixed with breadcrumbs for tastier shellfish au gratin.

I love garlic and I love the fact that no guilt is involved when I eat it. Garlic is delicious and good for your health. The cardiovascular system benefits from regular garlic intake, it is also key in cholesterol management, a potent anti-fungal, powerful antibiotic, and renown blood pressure regulator.

Roasting whole garlic bulbs wrapped in foil will mellow the flavor and transform the cloves into a spreadable, creamy purée that can be added to bread, mashed potatoes, butter or risotto, clear a raspy throat and keep vampires away for a week or two.


  1. and it keeps away the vampires...smiles. i do like some garlic...and the quote you open with is hillarious...

  2. Couldn't have said it any better myself. They are easy to grow, btw, one clove transforms into a head within a few months.

  3. Love the info from one of the most informative writers I know! ~Great job Lola~
    I just harvested over 1200 heads of organic garlic, some I bought back from Italy. Wish you were closer I would send you some of the best ~Garlic~

  4. We eat garlic and lots of it most every day.
    I buy many varieties, some very spicy hot and others more mellow but we love them all.
    We just agreed the other day that the smell of garlic is the best smell there is with ground coffee coming in second.

  5. Gilroy, now there's a name I had forgotten.

    A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away I was working for an IT company in San Jose. While there I explored a small amount of California and managed to see places including Half Moon Bay, Point Lobos, Carmel, San Francisco (of course) and Gilroy.

    Gilroy was gearing up for the Garlic festival and it was a bit of a surprise to me that so much attention was given to that bulb.

    I understand Garlic a lot better now than I did then. Of course it deserves a festival. I sometimes think it is the ingredient to which the Latin phrase "sine qua non" most applies - without garlic there is nothing.

    Thanks for your post and helping to bring back memories of a wonderful time in California.

  6. Just lovely as usual Eleonora. So evocative!

  7. Thankyou for this tribute to the garlic. It really does have brilliant health benefits doesn't it!

  8. This is a very nice primer on the very indispensable garlic.

  9. The Stinking Rose has a location in Los Angeles, and I was lucky enough to go once. It was delicious!

  10. My dear Lola, I love you, but I cannot stand garlic!! (Now I am turning on my heels and flee to the dunes!) haha. Never mind. How are you?

  11. nom nom nom - I love garlic - so much I even occasionally make garlic soup - luscious - it puts wings on your feet! ;-)

  12. Love the old NY proverb -:)))

    Thanks, too, for this fine exposè!

  13. Wow! I have to show this post to my husband - he is a great believer in the power of garlic!

    Been trying to catch up on your rich, and beautiful blog, but I still have a lot of entries to still go back and read...

    Warm greetings from chilly southern africa :)

  14. Lovely stuff, whose charms I did not come to enjoy until a bit late in life. My Father HATED garlic - detested it, and its smell - so we never had any in the house. I grew to enjoy it, anyway, and as I had more freedom to choose my own menu, it was often involved.

    The health benefits are an added joy, of course. My Father died at age 62. I hope that my culinary differences (garlic, seafood - which he also detested) will give me a bit longer time to enjoy life.

  15. I've recently read about the healing properties in garlic. A chemical reaction occurs about 15 minutes after garlic is crushed. It can be preserved in a jar filled with water for up to a month. Whenever I start to get sick, I crush garlic and after 15 minutes, I chop it and sprinkle it over my dinner. It revamps me and a shower the next morning will get rid of the garlic smell. By the way, this smell is your cue that garlic has done its job. While I adore oven-roasted garlic, since it isn't crushed, it has no healing properties whatsoever.

    Try both in order to enjoy the taste of one and the health benefits of the other!

  16. Thank you all, my garlic-loving (and hating) friends! I knew this post would stir up a fine conversation.

    ~Brian, he he... can't be too stiff and serious when speaking of odiferous bulbs.
    ~Rosaria, I know! MrE planted a clove and it sprouted last week. Now the sprout is a foot tall!!!
    ~CChuck, wow! 1200 that's a lot of garlic!! Can it travel vacuum packed? (see what I'm getting at?)
    ~LoriE, we are on the same page. Garlic aroma wins, and coffee comes in a close second.
    ~Felix, thank you for sharing your wonderful memories. My father lives in the Monterey Bay so Carmel, Point Lobos and many other wonderful locations like Gilroy are somewhat home to me now.
    ~Stephen, thank you so much for your lovely comment.
    ~LindyLM, and soooo yummy too!
    ~CCLinda, glad you enjoyed!
    ~Amy, will have to go and review it!
    ~Geli, he he I knew you were going to say something of the sort, I remembered your haterd for the bulb :)
    ~Nicky, yum yum yum!! thank you so much for the recipe ;)
    ~ChuckP, ha ha I knew you'd enjoy.
    ~Karen, how is my beloved South Afric? Is it taking the World Cup loss well? I miss it so...
    ~Jim, I'm sure you'll live to 140 on your garlicky seafood & carnivore diet, only because that is how I intend to eat until then!
    ~ Glenys, thank you for the added info, I will keep it in mind! Grazie