Autumn on the Silk Road means pickles, and one unique kind gives garlic a chance to stand out on its own.
One of my favorite Silk Road pickles is Pomegranate Pickled Garlic enjoyed in the Black Sea countries of Georgia and Armenia, and down into Azerbaijan and Iran. This pickle recipe features garlic, which is often used to enhance the flavor of other foods but is generally underappreciated by itself. The other lovely thing about these pickles is that they use unsweetened pomegranate juice as a souring agent instead of the more common wine or apple cider vinegar.
These pickles come with a warning — they are extremely spicy, with the spice and heat coming from the garlic itself and from the dried chili peppers added to the pickling juice. But with some fresh, warm pita or naan, or any type of bread at all, they make a wonderful and unusual appetizer or snack. You might wish to serve them with a selection of cooler Silk Road dips — such as an Armenian Baba Ghanoush or an Iranian Cucumber and Yogurt dip — to provide some gentle contrast.
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Unless you have some serious sins to repent for, I suggest that you NOT peel the heads of garlic by hand but use the “pot trick” to loosen them instead. If you are unfamiliar with this bit of culinary magic, you place a whole head of garlic under a cutting board and press and roll it for half a minute to loosen the skin and membranes. Then you place the garlic head in a large saucepan, cover it and shake it for about a minute or two until the cloves are freed from the skins. You will need to do a little bit of cleaning by hand, but most of the work is taken care of by the pressing and shaking. Alternatively, you can go to a well-stocked Asian market and buy the naked cloves en masse. However you go about peeling the garlic, I guarantee that it’s worth it. These are pickles you’ll want to try.
Time to develop
Another warning: It takes a lot of time for these pickles to develop. I don’t recommend even trying them for at least two weeks, and suggest that you wait at least a month before cracking open the jars for the first time. Pickles made today will be best served at Christmas or New Year’s celebrations. The longer they develop, the more mellow the flavor will be, but it takes at least a month to begin to get a balance of sweet, sour and spicy going.
On a Georgian or other western Asian table, these pickles are served with many other small bites, like Korean banchan, to complement the main dishes. A bite of roast meat or a nibble of a kebab is accented by a clove of pickled garlic and a splash of strong red wine — perhaps a Muzukani — to wash it all down. Other small dishes could include some sour-cherry jam or a thick sauce called tkemali made from sour plums to add the taste of fruit to some bites. The rhythm of the meal flows from spicy to sweet, depending on the diner’s desire.
Humans have been eating garlic for thousands of years. It originated in Central Asia, and there is well-documented use of garlic in ancient Mesopotamian dishes from the Babylonian culinary tablets housed at Yale University. I’ve reinterpreted some of these recipes and they are available on “The Silk Road Gourmet.” Although I’m identifying new recipes from ancient Mesopotamia all the time, I haven’t yet come across one for pickled garlic. Instead, the Mesopotamians used garlic in meat pies, and mashed the garlic together with yogurt, leeks and onions (shallots) to flavor a wide variety of dishes such as Lamb With Carob, or Mutton With Wild Licorice and Juniper.
Beyond keeping vampires and other ghouls away there are a lot of health benefits to garlic, particularly in raw or pickled form. Research shows it is a powerful cell-protecting antioxidant. Raw garlic is good for you, because it has more of the compounds that provide the health benefits than cooked garlic. Also, pickled garlic increases the amount of beneficial compounds in the garlic, so the longer you pickle it, the better it is for you. Because of its antioxidant activities, garlic has been shown to demonstrate anti-aging properties, it assists in regulating blood-sugar levels and vascular health and it has neuroprotective effects as well. All this and flavor too!
Pomegranate Pickled Garlic
Prep time: 3 hours
Cooking time: 10 minutes plus 1 month to pickle
Total time: 1 month
2 large heads of garlic (about 60 cloves), peeled
3 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice
1/4 cup of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked or lightly crushed
2 to 3 hot, dried red chili peppers (I use Japone)
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
1. Place the peeled garlic into a sterile glass jar and add the salt and sugar. Cover and shake to mix. Let stand on the counter for 1 to 2 hours, shaking every now and then to get the garlic to start to break down and give off its liquid.
2. Heat the pomegranate juice and the vinegar in a small saucepan to bring to a boil. Add the peppercorns, the sliced or torn chili peppers and the dill, and remove from heat to cool. If you like the garlic to be crunchy, let the pickling juice cool to room temperature. If you want the garlic to be softer, add the pickling juice to the garlic when it is still hot. Make sure that the pomegranate juice mixture covers the garlic, then cap the jar and shake well.
3. Store refrigerated, or in a cool or cold place for 2 to 4 weeks before eating.
I give the jars a light shake at least once a week to ensure that the pickling process is happening evenly.
Main photo: Garlic pickles. Credit: Ilikesoup-Dreamstime