“Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.” – Alice May Brock (Alice’s Restaurant).
It’s the end of January, and at our allotment, the promising, green shoots of garlic are about three inches above the ground.
For a plant that takes up little space, it rewards with an unbeatable mix of dense nutrition and pungent flavour.
Garlic occupies a very unique and wonderful place in the culinary world of taste and flavour.
Rightly regarded as one of the most important edible plants for providing not just its own flavour, but for enhancing the flavour of other ingredients.
It’s essential to a wide range of dishes, from complex Asian curries, to classic French moules marinière.
Garlic has the added bonus of being incredibly rich in vitamins and minerals. It’s a ‘first class prebiotic” according to Tim Spector, which means it’s very good at promoting healthy gut bacteria.
Garlic is also high in polyphenols – the multiple chemical compounds that have anti-oxident properties, so may be very helpful in combating disease.
I’ve found a couple of 16th Century English recipes, including the wonderful-sounding ‘Eel in Herb Sauce’, (from McEndry’s ‘Seven Hundred Years of English Cooking’), that prove garlic has been used in British cooking for a very long time. But when I was a child growing up in England, I don’t think I ever saw garlic in the shops, and we certainly never cooked with it. A serving of hot, buttery, garlic bread on a rare trip to a restaurant was an exotic treat. The UK has come a long way from confining garlic to being spread over a loaf of french bread and warmed in the oven.
These are some of my favourite ways of using garlic:
- Baked, whole garlic.
When garlic is cooked slowly, its pungency is softened into a sweet, sticky and soft bulb of goodness. Herb and spice guru Ian Hemphill (The Spice and Herb Bible), recommends placing a whole bulb on a barbecue. You don’t need to confine this delicious method to an outdoor summer party though. We cook whole garlic in the oven, especially easy when the oven’s on for a roast.
Here’s how to cook it:
Take a large bulb of preferably organic, garlic. Don’t peel it. Wrap it in foil and bake it at 190C for about 45 mins, or until soft when you squeeze it lightly.
Unwrap from the foil and slice in half horizontally. Eat with a teaspoon.
You can add variation to this basic baked whole garlic, by slicing the garlic bulb in half before cooking and sprinkling your favouite herb or spice seasoning on the cut slices, then putting back together and roasting as above. Ras el hanout is my favourite spice blend for this.
2. Roast lamb with garlic and rosemary.
These three ingredients combine brilliantly. There’s something abut the sweet, herby aroma of rosemary and the umami of the lamb which is lifted even further with the addition of garlic.
Make some deep slits in the skin of a shoulder or leg of lamb. Poke peeled garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary into the slits and roast as usual.
3. Wild garlic pesto
In late spring, wild garlic graces Britain’s woodlands with a pungent, white and green carpet. It’s a beautiful sight and making something to eat from this free, prolific and delicious spring plant seems the obvious thing to do.
Pick a large bunch of the leaves and flowers (leaving the bulb in the ground to regrow). Wash and then blend with 50g pine nuts, 50g parmesan, a generous pinch of salt and pepper, a tsp lemon juice and 150ml of olive oil. Serve mixed into spaghetti or, if you’re in gourmet mood, make your own wild garlic pesto ravioli.
My partner makes the most delicious split pea dhal. It’s hot and earthy with a real depth of flavour from the garlic, chilies and spices. I thoroughly recommend it!
Here’s the recipe, which makes enough for four:
½ cup split peas, rinsed
3 cups water
1 medium potato, washed and diced
1 tsp natural vegetable stock
¼ tsp turmeric
1 TBsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped finely
2 big cloves garlic
1 chili, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
½ tsp cumin
1. Place the split peas, water, potato, vegetable stock, turmeric and chili in a large pan, bring to the boil and then simmer for about 45 minutes, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the mixture is creamy.
2. Whilst the peas are cooking, place the olive oil, onion, garlic and chili in a small pan and cook gently for 5 minutes till the ingredients are soft.
3. Add the tomato and cumin. Cook for a further 5 minutes then add to the cooked split peas and stir well before serving.
If you have a favourite way of cooking with garlic, I’d love to hear from you.