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Lovers of fresh garlic are approaching that awkward, in-between time phase of the year when, on supermarket shelves and in root cellars, in pantries and climate-controlled warehouses, the garlic of the northern hemisphere begins to sprout. Some varieties will sprout later than others, and differing storage conditions will influence the onset of sprouting as well. But the bottom line is that until this summer’s harvest, we’re all stuck with last year’s garlic. Be they producers, home gardeners, or home cooks that purchase their garlic at the store, sooner or later anyone who leads the garlic lifestyle will encounter a soft clove with a little garlic plant growing inside it. Fortunately, for this and other reasons, we have the Brazilian techniques.
Many cooks will cut out that green shoot and cast it aside, as is often done with the scabby root at the bottom of the clove. But the thing about garlic is that the whole plant is edible, from nose to tail. It all tastes like garlic, and I intend to eat as much of it as I can.
The sprout is beautiful, and I enjoy cooking the sprouted cloves in dishes that emphasize their looks, such as roasted whole with thin-sliced potatoes, or tossed in soups or curries. I will also pickle some, especially if I’m out of other pickled product.
But while a sprouting clove can be appreciated and enjoyed, you better do it soon. The growing sprout will steadily deplete the resources of its clove, like a developing chicken egg absorbing its yolk sac. In the coming months, the clove will shrivel as the stem stretches and twists in search of the soil surface, completely unaware that it’s on your kitchen window.
Which brings me to an array of garlic and salt pastes that I call, collectively, the Brazilian techniques. They all result in a salted garlic paste that is at once a condiment, marinade, ingredient, and food storage form. Before I let my cloves shrivel, they will be preserved via the Brazilian techniques.
I first encountered this garlic mash in an open air, vegetarian kitchen in the jungled mountains of interior Bahia. The master of the kitchen was a serious woman named Jeu, who referred to her product as alho machucado. Alho means garlic, and machucado means beat up-not just banged and bruised, but pretty badly chewed up.
Periodically, one of Jeu’s assistants would get to peeling a dauntingly tall mountain of garlic. The cook mashed the peeled garlic with salt in a big wooden mortar and pestle, until it was a whitish paste, at which point garlic prep was officially taken care of for the next few weeks. Whenever garlic was called for-which is to say, in virtually every non-desert or breakfast dish Jeu turned out-it would be scooped out of the large jar of alho machucado that was kept in the fridge.
Jeu used alho machucado in ways that seemed to contradict laws of the culinary universe, like the one that says you don’t rub salted garlic paste onto a hot pan that doesn’t have any oil on it, and then smear it into a thin veneer that covers the pan bottom. Jeu always managed to add some hydrating ingredient just in time to prevent the browning garlic paste, which admittedly smelled quite good, from burning.
She began many of her dishes this way, including rice, beans, okra, acaraje, and even carrot mayonnaise, and I never detected the bitter, acrid flavor of burnt garlic. And as I’ve learned in subsequent research, there is a place for salted garlic paste in a plethora of other Brazilian foods, including some preparations of Brazil’s most famous meat dish, churrasco.
The garlic I grow, Romanian Red, isn’t the longest-lasting garlic cultivar, and that’s OK. I grow it because it’s big, beautiful, and mild flavored, and when I start noticing green in my chopped garlic, I know it’s time to whip up some Brazilian technique of my own in the food processor.
When fresh, alho machucado is piercing in its garlic heat, but it mellows with time in the fridge. I use it in virtually any way that I would otherwise use garlic, adding it to sauces, dressings, stir-fries, and oiled pans. I have yet to find the courage to rub it on dry cast iron.
Long term, salted garlic paste can be kept in the freezer, as I recently learned from watching a YouTube video of a Brazilian grandma producing the puffiest white cloud of garlic fluff I’ve seen, while a repeating loop of electronic tones cycled somewhere in the background. She, like many of the video makers, had a humble-looking plastic deal that turned a load of garlic into a smooth vortex in an instant. Sometimes I had to wonder if sometimes the videos were less instructional and more humble-brag-torials about their blenders.
Other Brazilians appear to have blenders like mine, but instead of feeling bad about themselves, in typical Brazilian fashion they grab that appliance at both ends, while its whizzing at full speed, and shake that thing like a chocalho in the middle of the damn Sambadrome.
Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese would find many of these videos adorable and full of information and nuance on the ways of mashing garlic with salt. After numerous recipes and videos, and a nostalgic Facebook chat with a friend in Brazil, I realized that these various Brazilian techniques are all, in fact, members of the broad category of tempero de alho, in which tempero means, variously, seasoning, spice, dressing, sauce, marinade, etc.
The proportions vary widely, from a spoonful of salt in a pile of garlic, to two parts salt for one part garlic. The higher the salt content, the better it is preserved, and the more it tastes like garlicky salt, and less like salty garlic. Onion is often included. Sometimes oil, or some regional spice mix.
For use in meat and beans, it’s common to add parsley and green onion (the name of this duo, cheiro-verde, translates to “green-smell”) to the tempero, which is thus known as a tempero verde, or green tempero. For rice and vegetables, the so-called tempero branco, or white tempero of just salt and garlic, is advised.
One thing everyone seems to agree on, however you make it, is that it should be stored in glass jars, never plastic. As far as that green shoot that may or may not be growing inside the garlic cloves this time of year, I am more than OK with a little verde in my tempero. It’s a reminder that spring is around the corner.