Getting to know garlic

by Ari LeVaux

Photo by Ari LeVaux.
Photo by Ari LeVaux.

Many people claim to love garlic, but can’t tell a hardneck from a softneck. That’s like claiming to be a car guy, but not knowing the difference between a standard and automatic transmission.  One is for high performance, the other is for the undiscerning masses.

If you’ve ever tried to peel 15 tiny slivers of garlic just to get enough for a proper meal, and had the wispy wrappers stuck to your stinky garlic juice fingers, then you know the frustration of softneck garlic. But do you know the giddiness of not being able to find a clove small enough for a dinner for two? Or the pleasure of placing a single piece on a cutting board and bopping it with a frying pan, so the wrapper falls off the fat clove like Harvey Weinstein’s bathrobe? Ease of peeling means more time doing the fun parts of cooking. 

Hardneck garlic cloves radiate around a central stalk like slices of pie, while softneck bulbs are lumpier, with a central stalk that is shriveled like a belly button. All you have to do is press your thumb into the middle of a bulb and you will know what you are dealing with, if it wasn’t already obvious.  

The majority of the world’s garlic is of the softneck variety, which lends itself more readily to mass cultivation. Most hardneck acreage is tended by smaller-scale farmers, of the size you would see representing at a farmers market. Family farmers are growing for themselves as well as their customers, after all, and they want to eat the good stuff. Not only is hardneck better in the kitchen and more fun to grow, but only hardneck garlic produces the early-season scapes that amount to an extra harvest on the same garlic crop. Softneck garlic, to its credit, will usually store longer into the following spring. So if you are looking to be garlic self-sufficient, you might want to consider planting a portion of softneck, or living on scapes for a few weeks. The other redeeming trait about softneck garlic is you can braid it. (Yay.)

One typically has to pay more for hard neck, but it’s worth every penny. The first time I saw Romanian Red, in a basket in the back of a pickup truck in the Pacific Northwest, I bought 30 pounds for $150. That was 15 years ago and one of the best investments I’ve ever made. To this day, Romanian Red is the kind of garlic you want to work with in the kitchen, ergo the kind you want to plant. 

The man who sold me that life-changing garlic stash, David Ronniger, passed away last summer.  A grower and purveyor of the finest in root vegetables, David was a great guy to have around. Until our paths first crossed at the Tonasket Barter Faire, I had been growing a not-bad Spanish Rosa. But since meeting the Romanian Red I have not looked back. All of my garlic growing friends have switched as well, growing out seed that I’d gifted them.  

 
Once, to win a soft vs hardneck debate with my farmer friend Patty Fialkowitz, I gave her a bag of Romanian Red. Years went by. I moved away. I moved back to find Patty’s husband Bob is now growing 600 pounds of Romanian Red, all from the seed I gave her to make my point. Bob was even selling Romanian Red to David Ronniger, who ended up selling more Romanian Red than he could grow. Now that David is gone, Bob has extra, if anybody wants any. (Fialkyfarm@gmail.com)

Online, the going rate for Romanian Red seed is about $25 bucks a pound, but I’m pretty sure the stuff available at your local farmers market, including Bob’s, runs quite a bit less, and you can plant it just the same. There is nothing special about so-called “seed garlic.” Or Romanian Red, for that matter. There are many good varieties out there, and the most important thing, other than it be a hardneck, is that it grows well in your area. If you pick up some locally grown garlic at your farmers market and treat it right, you can assume it will resemble what you bought.

Break the bulbs into cloves and plant them, scab side down, with the tip an inch below the surface of the earth, about 6-10 inches apart.  Mulch it thru the winter if you live in a cold climate, and don’t ever let it dry out until harvest time.
 
Otherwise, find a farmer that’s growing what you like, and buy a bunch to eat through the winter. 

Garlic Seafood Sauce

Here’s a recipe for a garlicky Thai sauce called nam jim, which basically means dipping sauce for seafood.  In addition to being great for that, it also gives a salt water flair to non-seafood dishes thanks to a copious amount of fish sauce. 

In addition to being too fishy and too garlicky, nam jim it is also too spicy, sour, and salty, so it all balances out. It’s a great marinade for wild game, which can then be pan-blackened in oil with mustard, kale or some other uppity greens. Nam jim works on eggs, can be mixed with mayo. Everything. And if a seafood feast is in order, and you have the shrimp or crab legs and whatnot, this sauce is all you need to eat seafood in a truly authentic and flavorful Thai way. 

There are as many recipes for nam jim as there are Thai kitchens. My recipe comes from Pornthip Rodgers, who runs Pagoda Chinese and Thai food in Missoula.

Ingredients

Sixteen miniscule garlic cloves, painstakingly peeled (she used soft neck garlic, in other words); or, preferably, a clove or two of a decent stock
Small bunch of cilantro
Way too many Thai-style chiles for me to handle. Meaning at least one
Two limes, quartered and ready to squeeze, for about 1/2 cup juice
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/3 cup sugar (or to taste)
2 Tablespoons chicken soup powder (Optional. She uses this as a replacement for MSG)
Salt, to taste

Pornthip augments the fresh garlic with a few heads of Thai style pickled garlic, which is hard to find outside of the big city. The rest of us can stick to fresh garlic and add splash of white vinegar. 

Start by blending the cilantro, garlic and chiles along with sugar, soup powder, and lime juice. Blend it all to a course slurry. Adjust ingredients to ensure there is too much of everything, then add too much fish sauce.