I could taste the smoked garlic in my head, sweet with roasting, savory with smoke, and perfect for all sorts of applications, but the one that I imagined most frequently appeared as a seafood stew spiced with Aleppo pepper and deepened with the garlic. Floating in my head through the course of the week, causing me to drool a little bit every time I thought about it, I couldn't wait to make this dinner this weekend.
When I sifted through Internet sources to discover how to smoke garlic, I found very little good information, so ECG and I experimented. First, we tried an easy approach, setting a couple of heads on a cedar grilling sheet on indirect heat in the gas grill where we let them "smoke" for about an hour. The second attempt showed more promise for creating a very smoky product. A self-proclaimed expert at creating smoke (rather than crackling fire), ECG built a low fire in the firepit, and we set up a rack to lean against it. We tied a head of garlic to a rung on the rack, right in the midst of the smoke and left it there for about three hours.
Who was the winner? Neither. The grill-smoked garlic was deliciously roasted and sweet, but lacked any smoke flavor. The firepit smoked garlic had slight smoke flavor in the exterior cloves, but none towards the center of the head, and it hadn't roasted all the way through yet, so was quite raw in the center. Neither was a complete loser. To create a better flavor with the grill approach, we need to use something that will produce more smoke than just the cedar sheet. Perhaps well-soaked smoking chips or something similar would work. The firepit approach is even easier to remedy: we'll set up the pit in the morning and leave the garlic there all day.
The lack of smoky garlic did not deter me from my mission to make the slurpy mussels for dinner. I had picked up fresh mussels at the market in the morning, tucking them away in the refrigerator as soon as I got home. Occasionally throughout the day, while the garlic experiments progressed, I'd open the fridge and look at them; they'd close their shell mouths tightly when I poked at them, but when I caught them yawning, I'd marvel at their little muscles and organs.
When dinner time rolled around, I sauteed a small onion, a shake of Aleppo pepper, fennelseed, and salt in olive oil until the onion was translucent. I poured in a cup of dry vermouth and dropped in half a California bay leaf. The vermouth bubbled away to a fragrant syrup. Once it had reduced, I added a whole head of roasted garlic, each clove squeezed out of its wrapper and into the pot, and my second-to-last quart of homegrown tomatoes I put up last summer. I let it cook down and concentrate by about a third, then I turned up the heat, dropped in the mussels, covered the pot, and let it bubble away for three or four minutes, just long enough for the mussels to cook and release their briny juices. I lifted the lid and carefully removed a mussel with a large spoon; blow to cool, sniff to smell, blow to cool, sniff to smell, taste. The sweet roasted earth of the garlic met the clean salt of the ocean and created something better than both individually. It was delicious.
I tossed together a salad quickly, placed a loaf of ciabatta (for soaking up the juices) on the table, and served ECG a steaming plate of mussels. He sniffed at it. He took a spoon to the juices and tasted it. "Is there anise in here?"
"I hate anise."
He ate a mussel and said nothing. He ate another and spilled juices on his shirt, then cursed. He ate one more. Then he ate no more.
I've seen ECG slurp down mussels happily, and he certainly downs my vodka cream sauce that has a healthy dose of fennelseed as its not-so-secret ingredient. But last night, he couldn't stand the meal that I loved. As he got up to make himself a sandwich, I ate silently, trying to remember how much I enjoyed the dish.
I like what I'm eating. I like what I'm eating. I like what I'm eating.
I did like what I was eating, but I was simultaneously sad. My eating experience was one of slurping, sopping, and yumming, all the while glancing sadly at ECG's sandwich of naked bread with cheese and ham. Naked bread with cheese and ham? Blech. My meal was so much better.
Last night, ECG and I were on distant ends of the dining table, and not even close to meeting in the middle.
Of course, there is a layer of metaphor here. You've figured that out by now, eh?
But a night ends, and the next day happens, and when the next day happens with ECG finding me at my desk in the early afternoon and saying, "Do you want to go to The Huntington?," I know that my mussels and his naked sandwich and whatever else was on our table last night is ready to be faced then set aside on the shelf labeled "Unimportant."
We've got so much to figure out together, the least of which is how to smoke garlic.
While we wandered together happily through the gardens, talking and pointing out beauty, we met this cactus. It's what ECG's eyebrows will look like to me fifty years from now.