Garlic doesn't like to be peeled. It's perfectly happy clothed in its papery wraps; it's stubborn. I knew all that. But I was chopping garlic for a cooking demonstration conducted by Julia Child, and I was trying to look competent. Instead I found myself scratching and clawing at the garlic's crinkly skin, which barely budged.
"What are you doing?" Julia asked finally, a note of horror in her usually wonderful warble. With that, she whacked a bunch of garlic cloves with the side of her machete-size knife and chopped them all to bits in one fell swoop.
Thanks to technology and the inevitable differences of opinion among experts, there are actually several legitimate ways to coax garlic out of its garments. In addition to garlic presses, there's a rubber cylinder called a commercial tubular peeler. You can also immerse cloves in hot water four to five seconds, or in cold water for 20 minutes, to loosen the skin. Five to 15 seconds in a microwave oven makes individual cloves or even whole heads easier to peel.
Recipes calling for 40 or more cloves of the stinking rose no longer seem shocking these days as we embrace garlic's charms and powers through international cuisines, entire cookbooks devoted to the subject, garlic festivals, and restaurants specializing in (or possibly obsessed with) garlic-laden dishes.
A member of the lily family along with leeks, chives, shallots, and onions, garlic (Allium sativum) comes in dozens of varieties—estimates range from 50 to more than 300. The most commonly available, sometimes referred to as supermarket garlic, is usually either the big-bulbed California early or the smaller, lavender-hued California late.
In this country, garlic had an inauspicious beginning. An early American cookbook warned that "tho' used by the French" garlic was "better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery." In the West, it found favor more readily, possibly because of the influx of Chinese in the middle of the 19th century, as well as the region's garlic-loving Hispanic and Italian communities. The 1946 California Cook Book said, "Garlic in a salad is what you miss if it isn't there!"
By the 1970s, L. John Harris was publishing regular issues of The Garlic Times, convincing Berkeley's Chez Panisse to hold an annual garlic-redolent feast and helping to organize the first Garlic Festival in Gilroy, Calif., the self-proclaimed "Garlic Capital of the World." It's just possible that pesto, which Americans slathered over everything in the '70s, converted any remaining garlic holdouts.
As for garlic in the world's cuisines, it's practically ubiquitous. Dishes like Spain's red pepper and tomato romesco sauce, Greece's potato and almond spread, skordalia, France's garlic mayonnaise, aioli, and a Lebanese eggless version of aioli called toum bi zeit are fragrant with hefty quantities of garlic.
Garlic is also essential in Asian cuisines, where it is among the predominant elements in Korean cooking from hot pots to kimchi.
It also flavors virtually all Vietnamese savory dishes, while the Chinese diet is inconceivable without it. This is not really too surprising considering that China, where the aromatic has been cultivated for 5,000 years, produces 13 billion pounds of garlic annually, accounting for two-thirds of world production.
In California, dishes containing only wimp-level quantities of garlic almost certainly predate 1979, the year of the first Gilroy Garlic Festival. A small Silicon Valley bedroom community of 43,154 people 80 miles south of San Francisco, Gilroy today claims only about 300 of the state's 30,000 garlic-producing acres but the aroma of garlic still fills the air there. (The majority of California's annual 660 million pounds comes from the San Joaquin Valley.)
Originally organized by a group of Gilroy garlic growers and aficionados along with some major Bay Area garlic fans, the festival celebrates garlic in all its forms. Booths offer garlic braids and wreaths, garlic-shaped pot holders, earrings, and ceramics. During the three days of festivities, music, mimes, and marionettes entertain while science displays attempt to educate.
Garlic-laced dishes, from outstanding to outlandish, are the main attraction. The famous Great Garlic Cook-Off begins with a recipe contest attracting hundreds of entries every year and providing the world with such fanciful creations as Dr. Jensen's Uncensored 7-Clove Hash, Scallops Gilroix, Garlic Chip Cookies, and a supernacho prize- winner called Wowchos (see recipe, right). But before all the eating begins at this year's 24th annual Garlic Festival, Miss Garlic will ascend the throne to preside over the festivities.
Since the 1970s, Alice Waters's Chez Panisse has also honored the vegetable's virtuosity at the restaurant's annual Bastille Day celebration. Creations range from pickled garlic and spicy eggplant caviar to squab with garlic confit and garlic-studded pork loin.
One San Francisco restaurant that doesn't limit its devotion to a mere day or two is the Stinking Rose in North Beach. Its 40-clove chicken and bagna cauda, a warm dip containing one cup of cloves, are both rich in garlic. The restaurant's cookbook includes directions for garlic cough syrup, which not only wards off vampires but may (or may not) offer some of the other medicinal benefits attributed to garlic.
Health claims for garlic are as ancient as the vegetable itself and include its use as a remedy for everything from earache, gout, and pinworms to snakebite and arterio- sclerosis. However, for serious health concerns, rely on the scientifically proven therapies.
In addition to health claims, garlic has inspired many books devoted to the vegetable alone. Berkeley pub-lisher Ten Speed Press has brought out volumes of recipes from the Gilroy festivals and serves up garlicky titles like The Great Garlic Book and Garlic Is Life, both by Chester Aaron. According to Aaron, garlic grower extraordinaire with more than 90 varieties on his small farm in Occidental, Calif., there are two kinds of garlic: the soft necks (such as the aforementioned California early and late) and the hard necks. The latter are more labor intensive, less adaptable, and have a shorter shelf life. They are not readily available except at farmers' markets or by mail order.
Aaron's descriptions of each variety are mouthwatering and palpable: the Leningrad, with its "rich, earthy, lingering" flavor; the Polish Slubsk's "quick rush of heat that does not fade"; the easy-to-peel Spanish Roja, touted as "the most piquant garlic in the world." There are many others—Nootka rose, red torch, Chesnok red—all with their own delicious mysteries. But first, you have to peel them.
A clove is a clove is a clove
This recipe, a Gilroy Garlic Festival winner, was created by San Francisco garlic lover Leonard Brill. It is easy to make but impossible to stop eating.
- 2 large heads fresh garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
- 2 tablespoons oil
- tortilla chips
- 1¼4 cup chopped red onion
- 1 can (4 ounces) chopped green chiles
- 1¼3 cup sliced pimento-stuffed olives
- 11¼2 cups grated pepper Jack cheese
- chopped cilantro
- chopped green onion tops
Coat garlic cloves with oil and bake in a 375ºF oven for 30 minutes, or until they are soft and golden. Cover a metal baking pan (approximately 9 by 12 inches) with overlapping tortilla chips. Distribute garlic, red onion, chiles, and olives evenly over the chips. Cover with cheese and bake at 400ºF for about 5 minutes or until cheese melts. Top with cilantro and green onions and serve.
Makes about 4 appetizer servings (from The Complete Garlic Lovers' Cookbook, 1997, by the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, Calif.)
Gilroy Garlic Festival July 26-28, Christmas Hill Park, Gilroy, Calif., (408) 842-1625, www.gilroygarlicfestival.com. Northwest Garlic Festival June 15-16, Ocean Park, Wash., (360) 665-4448. Bastille Day July 14, Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif., (510) 548-5049, www.chezpanisse.com. Mail-order garlic: Chester Aaron, P.O. Box 388, Occidental, CA 95465, (707) 874-3114, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photography by Caren Alpert
This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.