By Ari Leveaux, Guest Contributor
It’s easy to take garlic for granted, given how easy it is to find fresh all year. By “fresh,” we mean not preserved in any way, but simply still alive, despite being harvested last summer.
Year-old garlic, which is what you will find today in the grocery store, is not to be confused with new garlic, which is very special and only available for a few weeks each summer — if you can find it at all.
Unless you shop where local produce is sold, or know a grower, you aren’t going to find new garlic right now, which is a shame. Imagine it being tomato season and not being able to find a fresh, local tomato. That’s how it is for garlic lovers right now, who are eating year-old garlic that was more than likely grown in China.
Garlic ages the same way many other species do, by shrinking, turning soft and yellow; the decline begins with a new organism growing in its core. Before the new germ appears, typically in late winter, the garlic in a state of suspended animation called cured.
Properly cured garlic is great. Storing fresh produce for year-round use is great. But, to bring up the tomato analogy again, there are things can be done with fresh tomatoes that simply can’t be done with frozen, canned or sun-dried.
From the moment you dig into a head of fresh garlic you can feel the difference. It’s more rounded and plump, as opposed to the gaunt, bony heads we’ve gotten used to in recent months. Peeling a new garlic clove is more like peeling an orange than a cured garlic clove; the peel isn’t made out of paper, but thick, spunky flesh. The brilliant white flesh is firm and crispy, and the cloves are notably juicy. The flavor of fresh garlic is more vivid and caustic when raw, and more sweet and mild when cooked, with no bitterness. It can be added, and added, and added again to a dish with no consequence. As the garlic dries and cures, it will no longer be so bright and glowing. So, garlic should be savored while still new.
There are many ways to do so. One way is to give it more of a leading role. Garlic as vegetable, rather than spice. Since new garlic cloves look like sea scallops, I’ve cooked them the way I like to cook those glorious mollusk muscles, in butter, bacon and olive oil with lemon and maybe oyster sauce. With something green wilted in there, I call it a meal.
You can tell how new a head of garlic is by examining the point where the stem was cut off the bulb. That point of stem that separates plant from bulb is an umbilical cord of sorts and it can tell us how recently it was birthed from the ground. Does the cut stem look sharp, with concentric circles of tissue, or does it more resemble a shriveled belly button? Is there any green left in the stem? Better yet, is the green stem, along with its attached plant, still connected to the bulb?
There is, however, no better way to appreciate garlic than in a heavenly substance known as toum, also known as Lebanese garlic sauce. There are few recipes as life-changing as this one. It is a type of mayonnaise made with garlic as the emulsifier instead of egg yolk. It’s as fluffy and creamy as mayonnaise, with oil and lemon juice bonded in a stable embrace with the help of garlic.
Toum is traditionally used as a marinade, dipping sauce, or spread. But I find that when I have toum, I find many ways to use it. A splat in the pan, or stirred into a plate of hot noodles, or tossed into a salad as a pre-dressing.
Toum can be used as a base for the creation of advanced sauces and condiments. Spices like chile powder, or spice mixes like harissa, fresh herbs, or even other condiments like mayo, mustard or sour cream, can be mixed with toum. The flavor, texture, versatility and ease of use make toum an absolute force in the kitchen.
Like many great sauces, toum will expand a chef’s powers, allowing more delicious and creative things to happen more quickly. For example, my latest creation: the toum-burger. It’s just hamburger meat mixed with toum, and cooked like burger. And it’s a total show-stopper.
Many of the recipes I give are loosy-goosy, with quantities that are negotiable, substitutable, omittable, or otherwise malleable. Not so with toum. This one must be followed with the precision of a chemist. After you’ve successfully made the stuff, then you can feel free to experiment, adding flavors creating variations and making your friends play Name that Toum until they have heartburn.
1 cup garlic cloves, peeled and trimmed
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup fresh lime or lemon juice.
4 cups olive oil. Some recipes call for canola, but, gross! A lighter oil will make a brighter toum, but whatever. I love the flavor of olive oil.
Make sure all utensils are dry, and don’t let any water touch any of the ingredients. Ever.
Add the salt and garlic to a dry food processor and pulse four times, about five seconds per pulse. Scrape down the garlic with a spatula.
Now, turn the processor to on and leave it there.
Add a 1/2 cup of oil, slowly, in a very thin stream. Then add 2 teaspoons lemon juice, and another half cup, slowly, also in a thin stream. Then 2 more teaspoons lemon juice, and another 1/2 cup oil, and another 2 teaspoons lemon juice, etc. Continue this cycle until the oil and lemon juice are done, speeding up your pouring incrementally with each pour of oil.
The toum will get increasingly fluffy and beautiful, until the processor is almost full of this fabulous substance.
Transfer the toum to a storage container and let it cool in the fridge, covered with a paper towel to avoid condensation dripping down into the toum, which would cause it to separate. After it’s cool, cover it. It will last a month or longer in the fridge. But good luck keeping it that long.