Sunday, May 23, 2010

Decades of Meals Ahead

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?"

"There's fennelseed."

"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.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Can You Smell Me From Where You're Sitting?

I've got more life coming at me lately than I know what to do with. It has been a remarkably full spring, full of the very good and the very bad. The very good includes 110 of my AP English Language students, more than any other group in a single year in our school history, taking the exam last week. The bad includes a horrible act of gang violence that swung its fist smack into that same group of students. Truthfully though, it hasn't been all hard work and hard times, there have been a couple bouts of hilarity to help balance out the spring, and now, as the end of the year is in sight, I am fully expecting more of that hilarity. We all deserve it.

I tried to tell my yard to take a time out because I just couldn't keep up with it in the last month or so, but like an angry preteen girl, it just swung its ponytails at me and picked up the pace. I'll spare you most of the details and get down to what I know you're here for: harvesting and curing garlic.

Tearing open a head of fresh garlic will change someone's attitude towards garlic forever. The translucent tissues around each clove are vibrant pinks, salmons, and purples. Each clove is fat and pearly and juicy-crunchy. When I smash a fresh clove with the flat of my knife, juice and fresh chunks of garlic are likely to end up all over the immediate work area. And the smell. Oh my.

Already this spring, I've pulled a four of my twelve varieties, and each that were ready to harvest were Asiatic Turban varieties. These hard-neck varieties tend to mature early. I removed their scapes (emerging blossoms, great in stir fries and sautees) about three weeks ago, and harvested Shilla, Sonoran, and Red Janice last week and Blossom this week. Of the four, only Shilla had I grown before, and I was impressed last year by its powerful, unique flavor and its size. Red Janice competes this year in size, especially for so early a garlic. One of my Artichoke varieties (softnecks that perform very well in California), Red Toch, is ready to harvest, but we got an unexpected drizzle today, so I'll wait until tomorrow or Wednesday, when the soil is dry, to harvest.

After the hardneck garlics send up their scape, I stop watering all my garlics so they can dry out a bit for easy harvest and longer shelf life. The garlic tells me it is ready to be pulled when the leaves start to die from the bottom, and there are about only six strong green leaves left. To harvest, I hold the base of the garlic firmly with my left hand (I'm right handed), slide a small spade into the soil about four inches away from base of the garlic, far enough away to avoid nicking the bulb, and begin to pull. If the garlic doesn't readily release from the dry soil, I tilt the handle of the spade away from the garlic plant to give a little leverage. At this point, it is very important to not bruise or damage the garlic, because doing so greatly reduces how long it will last in storage. And, when it comes to garlic, I'm a greedy mofo. Losing garlic to rot just pisses me off.

I gently shake loose soil off each head, then bring them to a shady, well-ventilated, dry place to begin the first stage of curing. In the past, I laid them in single layers in the shade of my patio, but this year, I laid them along shelves in my airy shed. I left them there for four days as the exterior, dirty wrappers dried out. Letting the external wrappers dry out allows me to them clean the garlic quickly and effectively; I just grab a lower, dried out leaf or two and pull down towards the bulb. I pull the whole dirty external wrapper off that way and leave a clean bulb. Finally, I trim of the long roots with sturdy scissors.

Now clean, the garlic still needs to cure. Some people hang garlic at this point to dry for a week or two, but I don't have the lines I plan to install yet up in my shed, so the shelves will do for this as well. The garlic will need at least week, perhaps longer, before cutting of the stems. When I do cut the stems off, I cut a couple inches above the base of the plant. I can then place the garlic in mesh bags (you know, the ones that onions and oranges come in at markets) to store in a dark, cool place. I give the largest and most attractive bulbs special attention, storing them away in labeled paper bags to be pulled out next fall and planted.

I wrote once before about how tomatoes turn cooks into gardeners; if tomatoes pull a cook into the garden, it is garlic that will keep her there.

If you are interested in learning more about growing garlic (rather than just harvesting it), you can find a presentation I gave on growing garlic here.


This post is part of Harvest Mondays, graciously hosted by Daphne's Dandelions.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010