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Exploring Garlic: How to Grow and Cook With This Wonderful Herb

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Learn how to grow and cook with garlic

Learn how to grow and cook with garlic

Are You Hungry?

For just a moment, use your imagination; can you see, smell, and taste these dishes?

Fresh sheets of lasagna pasta combined with the sweet flavors of butternut squash and fennel, the earthy taste of mushrooms, and s pungent Gorgonzola cheese. A a creamy garlic herb sauce is gently drizzled over the top.

Individual ramekins are filled with tender chunks of turkey, baby peas, sweet carrots, soft cubes of potato, and a savory garlic-herb gravy bubbling up through a flaky cream-cheese pastry.

Welcome to My Kitchen

These are just two of the hundreds of recipes I have created for my family. I love to play with contrasting tastes and textures. Mediterranean, Latin, Asian, fusion—all appear on our dinner table. Fish, fowl, beef, pork, and vegetarian share equal status.

The one common thread?

Garlic.

It seems to appear in almost every dish.

But, Once Upon a Time We Were Strangers

There was no garlic in my mother's kitchen.

Mom had a dozen or so dishes in her cooking repertoire, and she prepared them well. I love Mom, but there was no sense of adventure in her cooking, perhaps because cooking was a chore, a necessity, not something "fun."

Fish and seafood were unheard of, beef was ground or a pot roast, the chicken was baked, and seasonings were salt and pepper. Our version of spaghetti with meat sauce was ground beef sauteed with onions and then briefly simmered with two cans of tomato sauce.

My culinary epiphany occurred sometime in the early 1970s when a co-worker invited me to her house for dinner. Teresa and her husband were first-generation Italian-Americans—a large, happy, boisterous family who made this little reddish-blonde German-Irish girl feel right at home.

Teresa prepared spaghetti, but it was nothing like the spaghetti of my childhood. A complexity of flavors amazed and delighted my taste buds. She was happy to share her recipe with me and introduced me to the wonders of tomato paste, fresh basil, red wine, olives, cinnamon, and garlic.

Teresa's spaghetti sauce

Teresa's spaghetti sauce

Teresa's Spaghetti Sauce Recipe

Ingredients for Meatballs

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  • 1 cup dry breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 lbs. lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. lean ground pork
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 whole eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper

Ingredients for Italian Gravy

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely minced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 (6-oz.) cans tomato paste
  • 36 oz. (4 ½ cups) chicken broth
  • ½ cup sliced black olives
  • 1 tablespoon fresh minced basil
  • 2 whole bay leaves
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste

Directions for Meatballs

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Combine bread crumbs and milk in small mixing bowl. Let this sit for 5 minutes.
  3. In a large mixing bowl combine the ground beef and the ground pork. Stir in the moistened bread crumbs and the remaining meatball ingredients. Combine.
  4. Form the meatballs and place on a lightly greased baking sheet (you want them to be a little larger than a golf ball).
  5. Bake about 20 minutes or until the meat begins to brown and firm up.

Directions for Italian Gravy

  1. Heat a heavy 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute more.
  2. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the chicken broth to the tomato paste and stir until well blended.
  4. Add the remaining ingredients.
  5. Carefully add the meatballs, but not the pan drippings. Treat them gently because they are very fragile. Make sure that all of the meatballs are totally submerged in the “gravy."
  6. Cover and cook over low heat for 2 hours.
  7. Remove the bay leaves before serving.

I Slowly Fell in Love With Garlic

My love for garlic began in Teresa's kitchen, but it was not a whirlwind romance. I was cautious.

The amazing taste of Teresa's meatballs encouraged me to try a bit of garlic in my meatloaf. Next, beef stew, and then a roast chicken.

Ultimately, I fell head-over-heels in love; garlic transitioned from a novelty ingredient to a standard component of my cooking routine.

That's a Lot of Garlic!

How fortunate that garlic is:

  • Available all year round
  • Easy to find
  • Inexpensive

But it is even easier, cheaper, and more rewarding to grow your own.

In My Garden

In mid- to late-October, the nights are cool and Autumn rains provide just the right amount of moisture for the planting of garlic. Here are the steps to follow:

  • Garlic grows easily in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9 (see map below).
  • Do not attempt to plant cloves from the grocery store. Most are treated to prevent sprouting, which makes them more difficult to grow and the variety in your store might be unsuitable for the area in which you live. Instead, purchase cloves from a mail order seed company or a local nursery.
  • Break apart cloves from the bulb a few days before planting (this will allow them to dry slightly), but keep the papery husk on each individual clove.
  • Select a sunny spot that has good drainage.
  • Place cloves 4 inches apart and 2 inches deep, with the broad end down and the point facing up).
  • Water deeply once a week if there is no rainfall.
  • If you live in the North where winters are harsh, it is suggested that you mulch heavily with straw. Your garlic will slumber now but reward you in late Summer.
  • Remove the cover of mulch in the Spring after the threat of frost has passed. (Young shoots can't survive in temps below 20°F on their own. Keep them under cover.)
  • Water every 3 to 5 days when the bulbs are forming (mid-May through June).
USDA Hardiness Zone Map

USDA Hardiness Zone Map

Scapes: The Reward Before the Great Harvest

As the garlic plants begin to grow, long green stalks called scapes will emerge and form loops. These tender sprouts can be pulled from the plant and used to make pesto, tossed into a stir-fry, or sauteed to add to cooked pasta.

Garlic (alium) scapes

Garlic (alium) scapes

When and How to Harvest Your Garlic

Garlic bulbs are ready for harvest when their leaves begin to wither and turn yellow or brown. Each clove that you planted in autumn should reward you with an entire head of new garlic. Harvest can begin in late summer (August) and continue through autumn.

Loosen the earth around each garlic bulb with your shovel; be careful that you do not cut into the bulb—garlic bruises easily. Leave the garlic to dry for several days in the sun, or in a well-ventilated space under shelter if rain is forecast.

© 2015 Linda Lum

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