Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fresh Garlic: A Summertime Treat

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I would have told you that I always cook with fresh garlic. By this, I would have meant that I do my own peeling and chopping, stinky fingers and all, rather than using powders or pre-diced products from jars. What I never realized was that the garlic I buy at the store is not in fact fresh, but dried. I suppose the paper skins should have been a clue, but "fresh" garlic is most often defined as I had done for so many years. Indeed, a quick internet search for the term brings up a whole host of sites that refer to the contrast between "fresh" garlic and powdered or minced, when what they really mean is dried.

And so it was that, when a true specimen of fresh garlic arrived with my farm share last week, a friend and I stood marveling over its size and form. Do you think this part is edible? We stood in my kitchen, both of us examining the stiff, dry greens coming off of an impossibly tall stalk. I'm sort of tempted to try it, said my friend. We looked at each other, and in a matter of seconds we each had a piece in our mouths. I felt my eyes water and my sinuses clear in a wasabi-like rush as I chewed on the tough, sharp morsel, and the two of us agreed we were fortunate that we did not have to do any mingling that night. The stalk, we concluded, was not edible.

Fresh garlic, I have since learned, is only available for a small part of the year. After growing through the winter and spring seasons, the garlic is ready for harvest in the summer. And, while some of the bulbs can be enjoyed fresh, they will not keep throughout the year. Thus, most garlic is dried, giving it a much longer shelf life. The stalks can be used for soup stocks or compost but, as my friend and I concluded, they are not much good for eating. The fresh cloves, however, are delicious, and can be used in any recipe where you would use dried garlic.

Unlike their dried counterparts, I discovered, the skins of raw garlic are silky and smooth, peeling away from the clove in one satisfying piece. The clove itself was almost watery to the touch, resulting in a crisp, translucent pile of aromatic goodness as my knife moved through it. Sauteed with some fresh zucchini and yellow squash and tossed with a little pasta, it provided the powerful garlic flavor that I know and love, but brought a certain sweetness to the dish. It had all of the punch, but a little less bite--perfect for a light pasta dish.

Later in the week, I used two more glorious cloves to make fresh pesto, something I am embarrassed to say I had never done before. Now that I realize how easy it is (and now that I have six thriving basil plants on my back porch), you can bet that this will become a regular event in my kitchen. Below is the scrumptious recipe, courtesy of another friend who recently passed it along. My advice to you: hit the farmers market and track down some truly fresh garlic while you can. Grab your favorite bottle of summer wine, whip up a batch of pesto, toss with pasta, and voila! A summer dinner that's fresh, easy, and a true taste treat.

Mattie's Three-Herb Pesto (makes about 1 cup)

2/3 c each of firmly packed basil, mint, and parsley leaves
1/3 c pine nuts, toasted
1/3 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 large garlic cloves, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 t salt
1/2 c olive oil
1 T balsamic vinegar, or to taste (if you like a citrusy flavor, a squirt of lemon juice can also work nicely as an acid here)

In a blender or food processor, puree all ingredients with salt and pepper to taste until smooth. (Pesto keeps in a jar with tight-fitting lid, chilled, up to 1 week.)

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