Not too long ago, few Americans ate garlic.
It had too strong a taste; it was too sharp. It made your breath smell bad. There is a reason that it was associated with keeping away vampires — the flavor and aroma were too intense, even for them.
If consumed at all, garlic would only be eaten in Italian food and only in small amounts.
That was how we thought at least through the 1960s. But now, we love the stuff. On average, Americans now eat more than 2 pounds of garlic each year, according to the Garlic Seed Foundation.
So I thought I would make several dishes that make the most out of garlic. I wanted the garlic flavor to be at the front and center of each dish, but I did not want it to be too strong, too pungent. I wanted the garlickiness to be redolent, but relatively mild.
Nothing offensive here. Just garlic that is smooth and mellow.
There are a couple of ways to achieve this result, both of which I used in all seven of my recipes.
The first is to leave the cloves whole. Most people mince or chop their garlic, exposing more surface area. That makes the flavor more acute and concentrated. In Italy, where they know something about garlic, the cloves are left whole so that the flavor is noticeable but not overpowering.
The other trick is to cook it at a relatively low temperature for a relatively long time. That way, the flavors get a chance to ripen and mature until the garlic is almost sweet.
Perhaps the purest example of these concepts is oven-roasted garlic. I first had this at a wonderful French restaurant in Chicago, Bistro 110, in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It made such an impression on me that they happily provided the recipe, printed nicely on an index card.
An hourlong braise in the oven renders an entire head's worth of cloves impossibly soft and spreadable. Cooked to the point where its natural sugars have caramelized, the garlic is at its best simply smeared on a piece of baguette. If the baguette has been buttered, well, so much the better.
Oven-roasted garlic plays an essential role in the next food I made, too: garlic vodka.
All you do is roast a head of garlic in the oven and then drop it in a jar with vodka. All it takes is 12 to 24 hours, for a subtle to a progressively stronger flavor.
I like garlic and I like vodka, but I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of garlic vodka — and this is coming from someone who thinks horseradish vodka is the king of alcoholic drinks. But if you, too, like garlic and vodka, you might want to give it a try.
It would make a wonderful Bloody Mary. And think of how great it would be in pasta with vodka sauce.
If you are still wary of using a lot of garlic in a dish, then you have probably forgotten about chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. It was all the rage in the 1970s and '80s.
It is indeed chicken cooked with 40 actual cloves of garlic, and it is sublime. Far from being acrid, as you would expect, the chicken is suffused with a warm, garlicky glow. But not too garlicky. The garlic does not even compete with the chicken; it only serves to enhance it.
If you have never had chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, I cannot recommend it enough. It may become your favorite way of preparing chicken.
And if the thought of 40 cloves scares you, then feel free to use 38 cloves. Just tell everyone it was 40.
No such deception is needed with the garlic bread I made. I used my Italian wife's recipe.
Her garlic bread begins with an equal combination of butter and olive oil, the way her mother made it. Into the mixture goes a couple of whole cloves of garlic — never minced or crushed in a garlic press, she warns. For this garlic bread, the subtlety of the garlic is key.
She does not touch her garlic beyond peeling it to make hers, but I made mine just a little stronger by crushing my cloves before adding them to the butter and olive oil. Either way is fine, but frankly I think I might like her slightly milder version better.
Subtlety was never on my mind before when I made stir-fried spinach with garlic, which I first had 25 years ago at the City Lights of China restaurant in Washington, D.C. I recall it being the sort of dish that left you smelling like garlic four days after you ate it, and I gleefully made it that same way in my own kitchen ever since.
But that's not the effect I was going for this time. Instead of essentially making the spinach a backdrop for the garlic, this time I left the cloves whole and allowed the garlic to flavor the spinach.
I like the old, garlicky way just fine, but I like this more understated dish better.
For an unexpected dish, I made fresh thyme and garlic soup. It was particularly easy to make, the sort of soup that you could easily whip up on a weeknight and serve either as a first course or as an entrée, if paired with something else such as cheese and bread. It is too thin to stand alone as an entrée.
It is unexpectedly good, because it is so easy to make. All you do is simmer garlic cloves in chicken (or vegetable) stock and sprigs of fresh thyme. When the garlic is soft, you remove the thyme and puree the garlic and stock. A healthy splash of lemon juice gives it just the right acidic counterpoint. A slice of stale — or toasted — bread on the bottom of the dish provides a foundation on which the other flavors are built.
Finally, I made a shrimp and garlic sauce — not the familiar Chinese dish but a version that would be more at home in Italy or Provence.
The dish comes together quickly, as it usually does when shrimp is involved, and it is unusually satisfying. It isn't just the shrimp and it isn't even the garlic. The way the shrimp and garlic come together with lemon juice, dry sherry and olive oil is quite a marvel.
It is the stuff that culinary dreams are made of.
Chicken With 40 Cloves of Garlic
Yield: 4 servings
40 cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
8 (5- to 7-ounce) bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts halved crosswise
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup dry sherry
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
Note: To peel many cloves of garlic at once, break garlic heads into cloves and place in a zipper-lock bag. Squeeze out air, seal bag and gently pound garlic with a rolling pin. Remove peeled cloves from bag.
Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position, and heat to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss garlic in a microwavable bowl with 1 teaspoon oil and sugar. Microwave garlic until slightly softened with light brown spotting, about 4 minutes, stirring halfway through.
Pat chicken dry with paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil in 12-inch oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Cook chicken skin-side down until browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer to plate, skin side up. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from skillet. Reduce heat to medium low, add garlic, and cook until evenly browned, about 1 minute.
Off heat, add sherry to skillet. Return skillet to medium heat, and bring sherry to simmer, scraping up any browned bits. Cook until sherry coats garlic and pan is nearly dry, about 4 minutes. Stir in broth, cream, the cornstarch mixture, thyme sprigs and bay leaf, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Return chicken skin side up to skillet along with any accumulated juices. Transfer skillet to oven, and roast until chicken registers 175 degrees, 18 to 22 minutes (15 to 20 minutes if cooking breasts).
Using pot holder (skillet handle will be hot), remove skillet from oven. Transfer chicken and half of garlic to serving platter. Discard thyme and bay leaf. Using potato masher, mash remaining garlic into sauce, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour half of sauce around chicken. Serve, passing remaining sauce separately.
Per serving: 580 calories; 40 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 207 milligrams cholesterol; 35 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams sugar; 1 gram fiber; 820 milligrams sodium; 83 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe from "The Chicken Bible" by America's Test Kitchen
Yield: 10 servings
1 large head of garlic, cut in half widthwise
2 cups good-quality vodka
Heat the oven to 300 degrees; place a rack in the middle of the oven.
Place garlic halves cut side down in a small baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil, then transfer to the oven. Cook until the garlic is tender and golden, about 1 hour. Let the halves cool completely.
Add garlic to a jar with the vodka. Let sit for 12 to 24 hours, depending on how strong a garlic flavor you want. Strain into a clean container. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.
Per serving: 115 calories; 1 gram fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 1 gram carbohydrate; no sugar; 1 gram fiber; 233 milligrams sodium; 1 milligram calcium.
— Recipe by Brandon Matzek, via kitchenkonfidence.com
Yield: 16 servings
4 heads fresh garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Using a sharp knife, remove the top of the garlic head to expose the inner cloves. Brush heads with olive oil, and place in a shallow casserole or au gratin dish. Fill dish with 1 inch of water, and cover. Bake 45 to 60 minutes until garlic is soft and light brown.
To eat, remove garlic from its skin with a knife, and spread onto baguette rounds with butter.
— Recipe from Bistro 110
Fresh Thyme and Garlic Soup
Yield: 4 servings
4 heads of garlic
1 bunch (12 sprigs) fresh thyme, or 4 fresh sage leaves or 3 fresh tarragon sprigs or 6 springs of fresh marjoram or 1 large bunch of parsley
1 quart chicken broth or water
Juice of 1 lemon or lime
Salt and pepper
4 slices of stale or lightly toasted French bread, plus extra slices for passing
Break up the heads of garlic into cloves. Discard the papery membrane that comes off while you're breaking up the heads, but don't bother peeling the cloves.
Tie the thyme or other herbs into a small bundle and put it into a 4-quart pot with the garlic. Pour in the stock, cover the pot and bring the soup to a slow simmer. Cook about 30 minutes, until the garlic cloves are very soft and can be crushed easily against the inside of the pot.
Strain the soup through a strainer into a blender. Peel the garlic (the peels will come off very easily) and add the cloves to the blender, or simply use the ladle to crush the unpeeled cloves against the strainer into the blender. Add the lemon or lime juice, season with salt and pepper, and puree.
Place a slice of stale bread in each bowl and pour the soup over it. You can top each bowl of soup with a spoonful of virgin olive oil or a dollop of butter, but this isn't essential. Pass slices of French bread brushed with olive oil in a basket.
Per serving: 210 calories; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 5 milligrams cholesterol; 10 grams protein; 42 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams sugar; 2 grams fiber; 1,183 milligrams sodium; 148 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe from "Splendid Soups" by James Peterson
Garlic Bread a la Mary Anne
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, peeled (see note)
1 loaf Italian bread
Note: For the subtlest flavor, leave the garlic cloves whole. For a slightly more garlicky taste, lightly crush the garlic.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat oil and butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until butter melts. Add garlic, and gently cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and let sit at least 10 minutes with the garlic still in the mixture.
Cut bread into 12 slices, but don't cut all the way through; the slices should resemble an accordion. Brush the butter-oil mixture on both sides of each slice. Place bread on a baking sheet, and heat in oven until warm, about 10 minutes.
Per serving: 260 calories; 10 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 10 milligrams cholesterol; 8 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams sugar; 2 grams fiber; 410 milligrams sodium; 10 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe by Mary Anne Pikrone
Shrimp in Garlic Sauce
Yield: 6 servings
1/3 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried red-pepper flakes
2 pounds large shrimp, shelled
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons dry sherry
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
In a large frying pan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the garlic, bay leaf and red-pepper flakes, and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the shrimp, salt and pepper to the pan, and stir to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are just done, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the sherry, lemon juice and parsley.
Per serving: 250 calories; 13 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 243 milligrams cholesterol; 31 grams protein; 2 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram sugar; no fiber; 713 milligrams sodium; 105 milligrams calcium.
— Adapted from Food & Wine
Stir-Fried Spinach With Garlic
Yield: 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds (24 ounces) fresh spinach (see note)
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
Note: If using baby spinach, you do not have to remove the stems. If using regular spinach, remove the stems before cooking.
Wash the spinach thoroughly. Heat a wok or a large skillet over high heat until it is hot. Add the oil, and when it is very hot and slightly smoking, add the garlic; stir-fry for 25 seconds.
Add the spinach and salt, and stir-fry for about 2 minutes to coat thoroughly with the oil. When the spinach has wilted to about one-third of its original volume, add the sugar and continue to stir-fry for 4 more minutes (less if using baby spinach). Transfer the spinach to a plate, and pour off any excess liquid. Serve hot or cold.
Per serving: 75 grams calories; 4 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; no cholesterol; 5 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams sugar; 4 grams fiber; 716 milligrams sodium; 174 milligrams calcium.
— Adapted from a recipe from "Complete Chinese Cookbook" by Ken Hom