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A truly great food and wine pairing can lead the way to nirvana. I can still remember my first time like a first kiss: It was fleeting, but held so much promise.
But matching food with wine can be a tricky business once you get much beyond “red with meat and white with fish.” So I jumped at the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen and at the table with Brian Streeter, culinary director of Cakebread Cellars and their famed American Harvest Workshops.
Cakebread Cellars is one of the most celebrated wineries in California’s Napa Valley. Started by a couple of weekend warriors who planted 22 acres in 1973, the winery has grown into a family dynasty producing elegant vintages from 510 acres. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Streeter joined the tightly knit group 13 years into its odyssey and has been pairing foods and wines almost every day for 27 years.
What are some core principles of food and wine pairing?
It’s all about intensity, acidity, tannins and alcohol. If you can get a handle on these core components, pairing any wine with food is much easier.
Intensity is all about the body or mouth feel of a wine. I might be stating the obvious, but lighter foods really do go best with lighter wines and richer, more complex foods go with richer, more complex wines. Color is the first great visual clue to a wine’s intensity, and knowing if the wine has spent any time barrel aging is a good signal too.
Acidity is the next thing to think about. To be a good food pairing wine, a wine needs to have a certain level of acidity. Wines low in acidity end up being flabby and don’t pair well. If I really want to highlight the bright acidity in a wine, I’ll marry it with a food component that has some natural sweetness to it. That’s why shellfish like shrimp, scallops or lobster goes so well with white wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The sweetness of the dish makes the acidity pop even more and seem brighter. But if you want to soften the acidity, adding lemon or white wine to the recipe makes the wine seem a little rounder.
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Lastly, consider the alcohol level. A low level of alcohol is a good indication that the wine’s grapes were picked earlier and acidity levels will be higher, so they will naturally go best with lighter food. If the wine is higher in alcohol, it will exhibit bigger, riper flavors. Often the winemaker will age it in new oak barrels, adding another element. These full-flavored wines cry out to be enjoyed with 2-inch thick prime porterhouse. But you want to be careful not to serve anything too spicy or too sweet with them as both tend to accentuate the alcohol in the wine and throw it out of balance.
Speaking of spicy, are there any tricks to pairing with those foods?
Often, spicy foods clash with wines that have seen time in barrel or have alcohol levels above 12.5%. I love Indian food because of its use of so many spices, but in order to make a successful wine pairing, sometimes recipes need to be dialed back or reinterpreted if you want to find a dish that really complements the wine. Once I’ve tasted the wine, then I decide whether I want to accentuate, or even soften, its style by how I season the dish with which I plan to pair it. Off-dry wines and wines with fruit-forward characteristics do best with really spicy food, unless the seasoning is so intense that it will overshadow any wine.
What other foods are risky to pair with wine?
Any ingredient that throws a wine out of balance or alters its natural finish is trouble. Red flags should go up with asparagus, artichokes, vinegar, eggs, soup and dishes that are designed to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Asparagus and artichokes are notorious for being bad partners with most wines. But asparagus just picked from our winery garden and cooked right away is one of the things I look forward to most at this time of year. I will rarely serve asparagus with red wine because it makes the wine taste like overcooked canned vegetables, but I think it’s fabulous with Cakebread’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Artichokes can easily throw a wine out of balance. Roasting them or grilling helps, but the wine might suffer a little for it. Save that really special bottle you’ve been holding onto for another occasion.
When it comes to salads, vinegar or acid is problematic because it can make a wine taste flat. Use sparingly and balance with other ingredients. Incorporating some protein — whether in the form of meat, cheese or nuts — softens the acidity and gives the wine more texture to interact with.
Eggs, particularly hard-boiled, can make a wine taste sulfurous. But if you like deviled eggs like I do, the acidity in Sauvignon Blanc is a good contrast to the richness of the egg.
Soup usually is a difficult course to pair wine with because it’s matching a liquid with a liquid. That said, soups that have some body to them are better than broths.
Sweetness in food accentuates acidity, alcohol and any tannin in a wine. We only make dry wines at Cakebread Cellars, so I’ll look elsewhere for off-dry wines to pair with these kinds of dishes.
What do you think is the most versatile varietal?
I have two favorites, Rosé and Pinot Noir. When it’s hot outside, nothing tastes better than a refreshing glass of Rosé. It’s more complex than white wine, but not as big as red and can be served chilled. I enjoy lighter food during the summer like salads and a lot of fish, so rosé is what I reach for.
When it comes to reds, you can pretty much divide red wine drinkers into two groups: the Pinot camp and the Cabernet camp. Pinot typically shows brighter red fruit, a little higher acidity and softer tannins, so they can pair well with a greater variety of foods. Salmon is a well-known choice for Pinot; pork and poultry work more often than not. When I’m having a big, juicy steak or roast, then I start thinking about Cabernet or Merlot. Firmer tannins match up much better to dark red meats.
Which should be a beginning oenophile’s instinctive choice: Contrast or complement?
Trying to pick a contrasting wine, like a sweeter wine to offset spice, can be a bit tricky, so I’d suggest taking the safer route. Choose a wine that complements a dish and you’ll probably end up with a successful pairing.
Thai Stone Crab Tostadas
This stone crab appetizer was one of many dishes I helped prepare in a recent cooking class at Cakebread Cellars. The sweetness of the crabmeat and the tang of the dressing heightened the bright acidity of the Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc we drank with it.
For the fried wontons:
8 wonton wrappers, halved on the diagonal to make 16 triangles
Vegetable oil for frying
For the topping:
1 cup stone crab meat (from about 1 pound cooked crab claws) or Dungeness crab meat
1½ cups very finely sliced green cabbage
2 tablespoons minced red onion
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
½ jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish
1. In a 4-quart saucepan, heat 3 inches of vegetable oil to 375 F. Fry the wonton wrappers a few at a time, turning them once with tongs, until they puff and turn golden, less than a minute. Drain on a rack or paper towels.
2. In a bowl, combine the crabmeat, cabbage, red onion and scallions.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, sugar, ginger and chile.
4. Add the dressing to the slaw and toss well.
5. Put a spoonful of slaw on each wonton wrapper. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve immediately.
Top photo: Thai stone crab tostadas. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Visiting the island of Maui in Hawaii was a last-minute lark. With no plan greater than mindlessly combing the beach, the only sensory experience I sought was that warm island wind my partner affectionately describes as “delicious.” But culinary curiosity won out, and within 24 hours I was combing local markets for all those indigenous ingredients you can’t get anywhere else. Luckily for me, a postage stamp-sized, extraordinary fish market was within walking distance. That’s where I was introduced to poke, the “hang loose” version of sushi.
Poke (pronounced PO-keh) is the Hawaiian way of dressing perfectly fresh, bite-sized chunks of ahi, or yellowfin, tuna with a few simple yet sometimes exotic ingredients. Longtime locals I spoke to recalled poke becoming popular in the 1970s and ’80s. While the dish may not have a long culinary history, islanders are quite addicted to the stuff.
Local flavors enhance freshness of poke
In its simplest form, poke begins with tuna tossed with slivers of sweet Maui onion and finely chopped green onion tops. The fun begins when the tuna salad is then made to order by selecting from a variety of ingredients, including chopped limu koha (fresh red seaweed), inamona (roasted, crushed kukui nut), Aloha Shoyu (local soy sauce), sesame oil and ground fresh red chili paste.
Every grocery store worth its Hawaiian red salt is judged first by the poke it keeps. After visiting a few different markets, it was clear that having the winning reputation for the best poke concoctions on the island was a big source of competition and pride. Poke masters don’t easily give up their secret combinations. At the best of them, long lines form at the poke counter for the quintessential local lunch favorite — poke piled high atop a scoop of steaming white rice.
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Some real digging was required to score the limu koha and inamona. Not typically stocked on grocery store shelves, it took a bit of cajoling with the poke master at Foodland Farms in Lahaina before I wrangled a little bit of these precious staples. You can substitute another authentically Hawaiian nut, the macadamia, for the inamona, but you’d be missing out on the deep, slightly salty, not as sweet finish. Finely chopped and roasted Brazil nuts might be a closer substitute, although not truly local.
Over a week of experimentation, I discovered it’s easy to overpower fresh ahi tuna, blanketing some of its natural sweetness with too much spice. I came to favor poke that celebrated the silky texture and subtle flavor of the catch of the day when seasoned with a light hand. But poke is very personal. Spicy poke is a top seller at many markets. Fresh jalapeno chilies and avocado are popular additions. Even kimchi made an appearance in a version I tasted.
To make this recipe in a true Hawaiian way, don’t worry too much about following it to the letter. Just “hang loose” if you can’t find that red seaweed or the kukui nut and invent your own personal poke favorite.
1 pound fresh ahi, or yellowfin, tuna, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 Maui onion, slivered
1 bunch green onion tops, chopped
½ cup limu kohu (red seaweed)
1 tablespoon inamona (roasted kukui nut), finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground fresh red chili paste
1 teaspoon ONO Hawaiian Seasoning*
⅓ cup soy sauce
¼ cup sesame oil
Gently combine all the ingredients together in a bowl, chill and marinate for at least 30 minutes or longer. As an appetizer, plate it up on its own or with thin savory crackers. For a light lunch, serve the poke accompanied by simple white rice.
* ONO Hawaiian Seasoning can be found in most island markets and online. To substitute, use coarse salt seasoned with cracked pepper, fresh minced ginger, fresh minced garlic, crushed dried chilies, cayenne and ground dried chilies.
Top photo: Some of the poke options at Foodland Farms in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Late winter is usually a somber time in the garden. But in Southern California, it’s citrus season — bringing a combination of riotous color and flavor intensity that cannot be matched any other time of the year. Whether it’s the heady fragrance of smooth-skinned Meyer lemons or the ruby red intensity of Moro blood oranges, citrus gives winter something to celebrate.
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While a simple emulsion of freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice with olio nuovo is divine on salad, I went in search of decadent and found it with the help of my new BFF in the kitchen, a Vitamix blender. Pressing one button and waiting six minutes results in a custard that is pure silk — whether the final outcome is slightly chilled and mounded into an awaiting tart shell or lightly frozen and scooped onto a pool of raspberry coulis.
I’ve made plenty of custards in my day, laboriously stirring egg yolks and sugar over a double boiler, ever watchful of impending lumps while adding juice and butter.
But the Vitamix rocked my little world, and I embarked on a grand and glorious tour of possibilities. The first stop was this Meyer lemon olive oil custard – or curd, as some would call it.
The key to the recipe is to use any blender whose blades can generate enough friction heat to gently cook the mixture quickly. The thermometer reading when I completed the cycle topped off at 170 F, plenty of heat to fully cook the eggs and plenty of speed to whisk the ingredients together in a remarkably smooth finish.
But the best benefit of this blender technique might be that the controlled low temperature and fast processing time could preserve the key health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. I went straight to the best source in California to confirm my suspicions.
“Exposure to light, oxygen and excessive heat deteriorates the natural antioxidants of extra virgin olive oil and removes some of its healthy benefits,” says Selina Wang, research director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “Using the freshest oil and keeping the cooking temperature and time to a minimum help to preserve the polyphenols and antioxidants without the risk of oxidation, which breaks down olive oil’s nutrients and flavor.”
As for its taste, I shared my lemon curd with Zester Daily co-founders Corie Brown and Chris Fager when I joined them for lunch, smuggling a purse-sized cooler into a swanky restaurant. They both agreed it topped the mark for creamy and lemony, but it was the mysterious hint of a different kind of tartness, an herb-like, grassy lemon verbena flavor, that finally gave away this custard’s secret ingredient.
6-Minute Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Custard
Makes 6 servings
This versatile custard can be served warm in a cocktail glass as a satin finish to a special dinner, chilled in a tart shell with a garnish of fresh fruit and whipped cream, or frozen and scooped like gelato. Just let it rest for 10 minutes before serving to reach optimum consistency.
3 whole eggs, room temperature
½ cup sugar
½ cup Meyer lemon juice, strained
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons lemon zest
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably fresh olio nuovo
1. Place all ingredients but the olive oil in a high-speed blender (must be capable of generating frictional heat above 160 F).
2. Turn the blender on to its highest setting and process for 4 minutes.
3. While continuing to run on high speed, pour in the olive oil and blend for an additional 90 to 105 seconds until you can see the custard firming up on the sides.
This recipe was created using the Vitamix Professionial Series 750, using its “hot soup” programmed cycle. It can be replicated by setting the blender at its top speed and running for a total process time of 5 minutes 45 seconds.
The custard can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for longer storage. When defrosted, it will return to the same creamy consistency as when fresh.
Top photo: Lemon curd in a pastry shell. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Gift shopping for gourmands is usually pretty easy. There is always a hot new cookbook or an expensive, must-have kitchen gadget (although these usually end up in the cupboard by the beginning of February, never to be seen again). But you don’t have to look far or spend much on a great gift for a tech-loving foodie. This season, there is an array of multimedia culinary iBooks, e-books and apps in the food and wine category. Plus, by going digital, you’ll avoid the shipping mayhem of the holidays (to say nothing of in-store shopping).
Most of these recommendations are more for the home cook or kitchen novice who wants some hand-holding, but others would also appeal to seasoned culinarians, like Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Selected Recipes.” This app includes charming recipe videos plucked from the PBS archives and current commentary from famed editor Judith Jones. And the pricey, professionally-geared industry bible from The Culinary Institute of America, “The Professional Chef” app, is an essential resource for any serious cook.
Here’s my take on some of the best titles out there. They are multimedia-rich and engaging at every level, with personalized video lessons from some of the best chefs and best-loved cooks in the country, people like Rick Bayless, Ree Drummond, Steven Raichlen, Amanda Hesser and Evan Kleiman. I’ve picked some old-school grand masters like James Beard and Julia Child, and some decidedly new school chefs like the Sussman brothers. You could even give a gift card and this list of suggestions, and let the recipient pick and choose whatever whets their appetite.
- “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond
It’s almost impossible not to love Drummond, whose popular blog, The Pioneer Woman Cooks, has grown into a sprawling lifestyle website. She’s a natural: Her writing makes you laugh, and her recipes, while not fancy, will appeal to most everyone willing to admit that we don’t all eat “gourmet” every night. I’m a huge fan of any cookbook published with Apple’s iBooks authoring software because of its intuitive, flexible interface. Embedded slide shows, videos, pop-up definitions and photo-enhanced navigation take cookbooks like this to a whole new level. $11.99
- “A Girl and Her Pig” by April Bloomfield
Chef Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory, offers a behind-the-scenes view of her Michelin-starred style. By the time you are into the first few pages of this iBook, she will have thoroughly charmed you with her British brogue and impressed you with her focus on perfection. Quirky illustrations and great food photography support her casual writing style. $12.99
- “Appetite’s Easy as Pie” featuring Evan Kleiman
If you are a pie-making beginner, you won’t be after you follow Kleiman’s master class techniques one video at a time. Each video screen features slide-out sidebars of step-by-step instructions and ingredient details. On-screen links to core crust recipes make the basics a single touch away. Kleiman, a former restaurant owner and the host of the radio show “Good Food” on Los Angeles’ KCRW (88.9 FM), takes the fear out of crafting the perfect pie crust. This app’s interface, however, is not as intuitive as most. $2.99
- “The Essential James Beard Cookbook” by James Beard, Rick Rodgers and John Ferrone
If this new Beard cookbook is not already on your shelf, it belongs on your tablet. A compilation of 450 of Beard’s best recipes with updated details from editor Rodgers, this e-book provides a window into the beginning of the culinary movement in the United States as seen through the eyes of the pioneer himself. Each chapter is enhanced with an interactive recipe index, note taking, bookmarking and enhanced search functions. $16.99
- “Holiday Recipes & Party Planning Guide by Food 52″ by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs
Stumped for what to serve for the holidays? Award-winning authors Hesser and Stubbs, who run the website Food 52, have assembled a wonderful assortment of party suggestions. Sprinkled with an occasional video, lots of instructional slide shows and links to shopping options, this app should be your go-to holiday cooking resource. The intuitive iPad-only interface from inkling is one of my favorites. $2.99
- “Gilt Taste” by Gilt Groupe
Curated by Ruth Reichl, former editor in chief of Gourmet, this app provides a seamless interface between well-vetted recipes, interesting articles and shopping for gourmet supplies on Gilt Taste, the food-and-wine branch of the Gilt designer flash sale site. Best of all, it’s first to offer the magic of hands-free technology. Wave your hand over the screen and it moves back and forth between recipe pages. No more sticky, flour-covered screen. Free
- “Panna” Best Chefs Best Recipes
One of the newest subscription video magazines features master chefs Rick Bayless, Jonathan Waxman, Anita Lo and Nancy Silverton. The premiere issue of this classy quarterly publication features 12 original Thanksgiving recipes totaling 198 minutes of high-def video. The video presentation is so well done, it makes the viewer feel as if they are getting a private one-on-one cooking class from each master chef. $4.95/single or $14.95/year
- “Mastering the Art of French Cooking – Selected Recipes” — by Julia Child
Lifted from the pages of culinary history, this is one of the first apps I felt like sitting down and enjoying with a cup of tea. With vintage clips from Child’s PBS show, photos capturing her early life and commentary by her editor, it’s not a grand undertaking, it’s just charming. $4.99
- “Martha Stewart Makes Cookies” and “Martha Stewart Makes Cocktails” by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
You just have to give props to the M.S. machine. Both titles are well-designed, easy to follow, inspirational in depth and plenty functional. Although the apps are free, all those advantages still come at a price: Both apps are memory hogs. Free
- “The Professional Chef” by The Culinary Institute of America
Produced by the top cooking school in the nation, this powerhouse app includes 1,200 pages and more than 100 instructional videos. If you need more reasons to check this out, read my earlier review in Zester Daily. $49.99
- “Secrets of the World’s Best Grilling” by Steven Raichlen
Raichlen has taken his bestselling book on grilling and gone digital with an iBook version, all for the better. There may not be as many recipes as in the printed version, but that doesn’t matter when you have well-produced videos and slide shows to guide your instruction. I just wonder if the grazing cows in the background know what he’s firing up on the grill? $6.99
- “This Is a Cookbook” by Max Sussman & Eli Sussman
This iBook is proof that digital cookbooks are meant to be ripped into and used, because tablets don’t look all that cool on a coffee table. Chefs and brothers Max and Eli capture their Brooklyn-based food-consuming lifestyle using plenty of digital tricks in a fun, graphical style, including embedded audio interviews, “back story” pop-ups and slide shows. They even serve up their favorite food-inspired iTunes playlists if you want to go really deep and match the mood. It’s cookbook-cum-entertainment. $12.99
Photo: Panna, a subscription food magazine. Credit: Caroline J. Beck, with permission from Panna
When apple cider is pressed from an orchard full of heirloom varieties, the result has all the complexities of the best vintage red wine, but the finish is as crisp and clean as water from a spring-fed stream. Cider this good can be served ice-cold in a glass and downed in one long draw, making it the simplest of holiday drinks.
But as good as it is, there’s still room for embellishment. Cider — hard or sweet — is enjoying a revival as the new “it” libation among the growing gluten-free crowd. And five minutes of prep time now will yield the perfect cocktail for a holiday party weeks away.
“Banjo Bill’s Anticipation” is a simple cider-based libation that comes straight out of old-time Arizona. Although the cocktail’s history stretches back to the late 1800s, you only need three to four weeks to steep the spiced rum that marries with fresh cider to create a rich, warm apéritif.
With a color that mimics the intensity of the surrounding red-rock landscape, this cocktail is the house signature drink at Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge in Sedona. Gary and Mary Garland have been serving cider-inspired cocktails at their historic rustic lodge for decades. But the inspiration for this one came from two other characters in the lodge’s history.
The first was a settler named William “Banjo Bill” Dwyer, who came to the Oak Creek Valley in the mid-1800s and was known to share spirited refreshments from his own whiskey still at the end of a hard day. He was born long before some of the dozen or so heirloom apple varieties were even planted in Garland’s orchard, but well in time to be one of the original lodge kitchen’s customers in 1908. The second source for the recipe was Forest “Captain Vacation” Hunter, a modern-day customer turned dining-room manager at Garland’s who dreamed up the home brew for the spiced rum.
Organic apple cider’s revival
I first tasted this drink after an hour-long tour of Garland’s organic apple orchards and gardens. Rob Lautze, master orchardist, explained that the biggest, boldest cider flavor comes from blending a balance of sweet and tart varieties. In making Garland’s cider, he was lucky enough to have more than one dozen heirloom types to pick from, including Grime’s Golden, Star King Double Red, Spitzenberg and even one that Lautze named Thomas, a hybrid apple grafted from a neighboring orchard of Winesap and Arkansas Black.
The fresh cider served to me had been pressed the previous day, and it was proof that the best ingredients can elevate even the simplest of drinks to a deeply rich and nuanced flavor. The magic behind the recipe is its reliance on truly fresh cider, not processed apple juice, and homemade spiced rum created from fresh ingredients not found in common bottled brands.
Banjo Bill’s Anticipation
From Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge
If you want to serve this piping-hot spiked cider for the winter holidays, you should get started now — even if it only means assembling a few ingredients and hiding them away to steep until it’s time to bring out this rich, warm holiday grog.
1¼ ounce spiced rum (see below)
6 ounces fresh apple cider
1. Mix ingredients.
2. Serve hot, in a mug with a cinnamon stick garnish, or over ice with a garnish of lime or a sprig of mint in warmer weather.
Captain Vacation’s Spiced Rum
2 750-ml bottles of light rum
2 fingers of fresh ginger, peeled and julienned (about 2 ounces)
4-5 sticks cinnamon
2 tablespoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon whole cardamom pods
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1. Wash and dry lemon and orange, removing any residue from the surface.
2. Peel the fruit, avoiding the white pith under the peel. Place the peels into a large, clean glass container.
3. Add the remaining spices and the rum, making sure that it completely covers the peels, ginger and spices. Stir the mixture and cover the container tightly. Place the container away from heat or sunlight and let the mixture steep for up to 3 to 4 weeks.
4. After steeping, place a colander lined with cheesecloth inside of a large bowl. Pour the rum mixture into the colander and drain, using a wooden spoon to press out any excess liquid from the peels. Discard the peels.
Photo: Banjo Bill’s Anticipation. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
A parking lot in a tiny Michigan village seems like an unlikely place to go shopping for gourmet goods, but it was harvest time and a black SUV was awaiting customers. Piled high in the trunk, gathered in bunches ready for drying and labeled with an odd assortment of names like Georgian Red Crystal, Asian Tempest and Broadleaf Czech, this was no illegal booty awaiting drive-by customers. It was a treasure trove of heirloom varieties of hard-neck garlic, delighting the lucky few who were able to procure their annual supply of handpicked bulbs.
Seed Sources and Information
Why all the hubbub? Garlic is a staple in kitchens worldwide, but it is rare to experience garlic at its peak of freshness, when heirloom varieties really show off their nuanced differences. Taste and texture are remarkably vibrant, far from the dry, dense, almost chewy structure of the commercially produced garlic found on display in large, dry bins at grocery stores.
Garlic is used as much for its ability to transform otherwise ho-hum dishes into sharply flavorful meals as for its antibiotic, antioxidant and potentially aphrodisiac qualities. With the average American consuming 2.3 pounds of the heady stuff each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures that on any given day, 18% of the population is consuming garlic in some form. But the majority of that garlic is a dehydrated component in processed food from a form of softneck garlic called “common garlic.”
Sorting out heirloom garlic
The common garlic of supermarkets is typified by having small cloves, tough outer skins and being well past its “best by” date. But it is ubiquitous because it’s easy to grow, easier still to process, inexpensive to produce and mostly imported from China. It also bears no resemblance to any of the roughly 500 heirloom varieties that continue to be cherished by real garlic aficionados. And don’t mistake “elephant garlic” for one of them. This plant, belonging to the leek family, may impress the eye with oversized cloves, but its size is a trade-off for milquetoast flavor.
The other family of garlic is hardneck, with as many varieties and personality profiles as my best friend’s large extended family from Sicily. With horticultural references such as Bavarian, Rocombole, Serpent, Porcelain and Purple Stripe, hardnecks are noted for their thick center neck, with 4 to 12 large cloves of pure flavor arranged around it. Cultivars like the aptly named Music from the Porcelain family are tender and creamy white, a mixture of spice and floral fragrance. The fresh cloves yield under the slightest pressure from the knife, creating a juicy and smooth paste in one quick smear. Heirloom varieties range from bulbs that are immediately super hot and spicy like Bogatyr of the Purple Stripe family to others like Chesnok Red with a mellow sweetness that reveals itself only when roasted into caramelized nuggets and makes it a popular choice for baking.
Garlic fans lucky enough to live in areas with perfect garlic-growing conditions (any mild climate with enough cold to “set” the bulb before overwintering) can successfully harvest heirloom varieties. The best seed producers release their cloves in September, in time to plant about six weeks before the ground freezes, and it’s often a race to order the best varieties before they run out.
Best of all, growing your own or knowing a farmer who does affords an extra garlic treat. The scapes, or wildly curvaceous flowering stems that sprout in the early spring, can be harvested and used in any salad or stir-fry in May and becomes a harbinger of good things to follow in July, when the full plant bulbs are ready to pull from the ground, start enjoying or hang to dry.
Roasted Garlic Aïoli
My biggest regret about a recipe like aïoli is that the two core ingredients, extra virgin olive oil and garlic, are at their freshest at opposite ends of the calendar. But sourcing a Southern hemisphere olio nuovo in a Northern hemisphere summer can solve that problem pretty simply. Incorporating a little mashed potato into the dip adds a creamy structure. I have Deenie Yudell, design manager of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to thank for this trick she shared with me over 30 years ago.
6 cloves fresh garlic
1 Yukon gold potato
2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
2 egg yolks
1½ – 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Roast 5 cloves of the fresh garlic in a skillet over a low-medium flame until the paper sheathing is browned and the cloves feel soft and pliable to the touch.
2. Boil the potato in boiling salted water along with the other clove of garlic. When it is tender, drain and mash.
3. Using an open whisk, combine the mashed garlic cloves and mashed potato with the white wine vinegar until well mixed. Add the egg yolks, unbeaten, and whisk vigorously while slowly adding olive oil in a thin stream until reaching your desired consistency. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
Top photo: Georgian Crystal garlic. Credit: Caroline J. Beck