Have you ever been to a restaurant where the smell of garlic nearly knocked you over? That's the kind of place that gave garlic a bad name, and at one point in history led to ethnic slurs. That's the kind of place that forces you to take your clothes to the dry cleaner, makes you long for the days when cigarette smoke infused them.
The Oxford Companion to Food calls garlic "the most powerfully flavoured (sic) member of the onion family." With true British understatement, it mentions that it is an "indispensable ingredient in many cuisines" (obviously not their own), indicating mild disapproval of the "notoriously strong" smell, asking "whether it is socially acceptable for people to give off this smell …"
Handled right, garlic flavor doesn't need to be a slap in the face.
But it can look intimidating. Whole garlic found in the supermarket produce section is called a "bulb" (according to Oxford) or a "head" (according to Lora Brody, the most sensible chef I know). It appears in its own papery white wrapper to be peeled off and thrown out. Under that, a number of individual cloves, from half a dozen up to 2 dozen, are each wrapped even more tightly in their own darker cover. Note: Don't confuse these "cloves" with the tiny "dried unopened bud of an evergreen" (Oxford again) that we stick into a scored ham. Totally different.
Anyway, the first thing a cook faces is how to choose. According to Brody, "small cloves of garlic are a pain to peel. Look for the larger heads." You want them to be firm, white or white with pale purple tracings. They should not be soft or bruised. Brody cautions to "avoid heads with powdery black rust or dried out cloves."
I avoid garlic in cans or jars. It's smelly! And who knows how old.
More wisdom from Ms. Brody: "If you have a cool kitchen, you can store garlic in a small bowl on the counter, or … with your potatoes and onions." I store mine in an open bowl in the fridge.
Once separated from the whole — just pull the cloves off — you need to get the individual cloves shed of wrappers. If you are peeling a lot of them, put them in a small metal bowl, then place another metal bowl over it so that the cloves, say five or more, are trapped inside. Then shake really hard so that they smack against the sides of the bowls.
When you take the bowls apart, the garlic should be peeled. If you're only peeling one, place it flatly on a cutting board. Pick up a wide knife, place the flat of the knife — not the blade or spine — on top of it. Then slap the side facing upward with the side of your fist. This will pop the clove it out of its skin, flattening it slightly. Warning: always be careful with knives, no blades facing your fingers.
So now you're ready to cook. Adding a handful of chopped garlic to a dish is something you see on TV. Sure, it looks great when some chef throws it into the skillet and cooks away at high heat. But chopped garlic burns easily. And those tough little pieces get caught in your teeth. Giving you garlic breath! (Ah, yes, Oxford, there's where you got it.)
What you want is garlic flavor, but not necessarily garlic. Unless you're doing roasted garlic, but not enough space here for that.
In Europe, chefs treat their garlic with respect. They warm a fat, either butter or olive oil or sunflower oil, etc., in a skillet. Then they throw in a garlic clove or two and give it a walk around the pan over medium heat, pushing it with a spoon or spatula, until it turns golden. NOT brown. Brown garlic is burnt garlic. (Remember that bad smell?) In many cases, they throw it. The flavor and smell of garlic becomes a gentle backdrop, or layer of flavor, to everything else.
Following are three recipes with different degrees of garlic, from gently sautéed and poached to lots and loud. The first is a version of cacciatore. No tomato sauce, mushrooms or pepper rings in this version. The garlic is gently sautéed, poached and discarded. The second is a classic French sauce, less often seen in this country, with a large punch of garlic that is never browned.
Chicken, hunter's style (Pollo alla cacciatore)
2 T olive oil
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, rinsed and patted dry
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional, may substitue additional chicken stock)
2 T white wine vinegar
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 t fresh oregano leaves or 1/2 t dried oregano
1 bay leaf
7 slivered black olives
2 anchovies, drained and finely chopped
Fresh oregano sprigs, for garnish (optional)
In a large heavy skillet (with a lid), warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken, cooking in batches to leave space between pieces as they cook. Cook 7 to 9 minutes on each side, until golden. Transfer chicken to a plate.
Reduce heat to medium. Pour off all but 1 to 2 tablespoons of fat in the pan. Add onion and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring, 5 to 7 minutes, until tender and lightly golden. Be careful not to brown garlic. Add wine and vinegar. Raise heat back to medium-high. Bring skillet to a boil until liquid is reduced to a quarter cup in volume.
Add the stock and continue to boil, stirring and scraping the bottom to lift any browned bits to flavor it.
Return chicken to the skillet, pouring in any juices from the plate. Add oregano and bay leaf. Cover partially. Reduce heat and simmer, 30 to 35 minutes, basting twice with cooking juices, until juices run clear.
Transfer chicken pieces to a serving platter. Discard garlic and bay leaf. Keep chicken warm. Stir olives and anchovies into the skillet. Cook, stirring, 3 to 5 minutes, until anchovies dissolve. Pour this sauce over the chicken on the platter. Garnish with oregano sprigs to serve.
Makes 4 servings
Serve this warm or cold over grilled or broiled fish, chicken, or steak. In a pinch, I've put it on baguettes, a definitely untraditional use. In each step when oil is heated, be careful not to allow it to smoke.
6 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds, roma tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
3 large green bell peppers, cored, halved, seeded, and cut lengthwise into thin slices
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt, pepper, to taste
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add tomatoes and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.
In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add onions; cook until lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer onions to a plate. In the same skillet, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add peppers. Cook until soft and tender, about 10 minutes.
Add onions and peppers to tomato mixture. Stir in garlic; season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook, uncovered, over the low heat, 1 hour, stirring from time to time, until tender and blended.
Authentic garlic bread
In summer, toast the bread on the grill.
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled
4 to 6 thickly cut pieces thick country bread
olive oil, preferably extra virgin
coarse sea salt, optional
Toast some really good ciabatta or other thick country bread. While it is still hot, run a garlic clove over it, as you would a crayon on paper. Then drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt. Serve warm.
Linda Bassett is the author of "From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston." Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda's blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.