Did my mom use garlic in her cooking? If so, with one exception, I have no recollection of it. The exception was a garlic spread for bread she bought in a little plastic jar, and boy, did I love that stuff. I’m trying to remember now, was it mixed with softened or melted butter (or worse, margarine) before smearing between slices of an Italian loaf? I know the loaf was wrapped in foil and baked, then served hot. Soft, buttery, and overwhelmingly garlicky, it made any meal special for me.
Now I wouldn’t touch it. The last time I saw it in a store, I looked at the ingredients and shuddered. To make real Italian garlic bread – on a good sturdy loaf of Italian bread – is easy, and so delicious. All it takes is fresh garlic and some good olive oil. I’ll tell you how in a bit.
I can’t imagine a kitchen without garlic. A whole head of garlic keeps well at room temperature; and if you peel a few more cloves than you need, they keep well refrigerated in an open or loosely covered jar. It was in vogue for a while to keep chopped garlic in olive oil; but because garlic is a low acid vegetable, clostridium botulinum, a bacterium which can form deadly toxins, can grow in this medium. Don’t even think about keeping garlic in this way.
Garlic probably first comes to mind when you think of Italian cuisine, although not all Italian dishes use it; it’s an integral part of many other cuisines, too. Depending on how it’s used, the flavor varies from subtle to biting. My mother-in-law, married to an Italian, didn’t come to using garlic naturally. She learned to add it to spaghetti sauce and minestrone from her mother-in-law, but still had a certain fear of using too much. It amused (and a little exasperated) me to learn that when she followed my recipe for minestrone, she only used one clove of garlic because, “Three would have been too much.” On the contrary, she could have used five if she’d dared, because long-cooked garlic mellows in flavor.
A famous French dish is chicken cooked with 40 cloves of garlic. There’s no way anyone would eat such a dish if garlic kept its raw harshness when cooked. But cooked with the chicken the entire time, it softens and becomes luscious and absolutely delicious.
Chopped or minced, garlic can be added to diced carrots, onions, celery, green peppers, or ginger for a seasoning base for soups, stews, or stir-fries. Thinly sliced and gently cooked in olive oil – never allow garlic to turn dark brown, or it will be bitter – it can be removed and the garlic-flavored oil used as a subtle seasoning. Thinly sliced or chopped and fried until light brown and a bit crisp, it’s a garnish. Roasted, it’s delicious pureed and added to mashed potatoes or sauces.
Raw, it can be rubbed around the inside of a salad bowl before making the salad, around a baking dish before baking vegetables, or in salad dressing. For a hint of flavor, spear the garlic clove in a toothpick before putting it into the dressing, and remove it when dressing the salad. If you’re fond of garlic, put a bit of minced garlic in the dressing and leave it.
Garlic minced together with parsley becomes a persillade in French cooking. Add some to a plain pan sauce just as it comes off the stove, or toss some with roasted potatoes after they come out of the oven (the residual heat in the sauce or the potatoes will ever so lightly cook it) and voilà! With little effort, you’ve added a whole new dimension of flavor.
What about garlic powder or granulated garlic? While it’s not my first choice, it has its place. Buy good quality garlic powder with no added ingredients; don’t use garlic salt. For seasoning a cutlet, chop, or steak before cooking, or a roast before searing, powdered garlic won’t burn the way minced garlic would. If something like chili or soup needs some more garlic after the flavor base is already cooked, garlic powder blends right in and adds what’s needed. Say you’ve cooked green beans and buttered them but they need a little something extra? A quick sprinkle fixes that almost instantly.
According to Penzeys Spices’s website, granulated garlic powder or dried minced garlic should be rehydrated before being added to anything acidic. Apparently, acid will stop the garlic from developing to its full strength. One quarter teaspoon dried garlic rehydrated in one teaspoon water is the equivalent of one whole garlic clove. That’s more or less, of course, as garlic cloves vary in size.
I’ve grown accustomed to calling the individual segments of a head of garlic cloves. However, in other parts of the country, they can be referred to as pods, beans, and even toes! Take your pick. Just don’t mistake the whole head for any of them, or much as you may like garlic, your dish will come out wrong.
And the garlic bread? Begin with an honest, sturdy loaf of Italian semolina or sesame-semolina bread, or ciabatta. Slice it ½” or 1″ thick, depending on your preference. Grill or broil it until medium to dark brown on one side only. As soon as that’s done, rub the toasted side with a peeled clove of raw garlic. The toasted crumbs act like a rasp, so the garlic will rub off onto the bread. Use as much or as little as you like – I usually go over the slice about two or three times. Then drizzle or brush the garlic side with the best quality extra virgin olive oil you have. Mmm, mmm – an elemental experience for true lovers of garlic, the “stinking rose.”