I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have fresh garlic in my kitchen ready to smash, mince, chop or slice to use for culinary enjoyment. I’ve got cookbooks devoted to garlic and file folders bulging with recipes that include several bold, pungent cloves of the stinking rose.
When I started buying garlic from local growers at the farmers market several years ago, I realized how much better it tasted than the bulbs I had been bringing home from the grocery store. Four or five years ago I attended the Minnesota Garlic Festival for the first time. That’s when I got the bug to try growing some of my own. It took me a few years to finally take the first step — getting some garlic to plant.
Early last Fall, just in time for garlic planting in northern Minnesota, a box of beautiful heads of garlic arrived at my door. Travel, busy work days and wet weather prevented the small garden plot (really a bed of weeds) that I had selected for my garlic crop from getting tilled and enriched with new soil.
On the day the first snowflakes fell, I called the seed company that I’d ordered the garlic from to ask if it would be safe for me to eat those bulbs that were meant for planting. (Please remember I’m not a gardener). “Of course,” said the woman at the other end of the phone. “Go ahead and eat them. Just order more next year if you decide to try again.” It didn’t take long for me to use up 18 bulbs of garlic — what was I thinking ordering so much for planting? (Remember, I’m not a gardener. I didn’t realize each clove becomes a new head of garlic underground.)
I’ll try again this year. Now I know I can buy some of my favorite garlic at the farmers market and stick some of those cloves into the ground. My little garden space is still a bed of blooming weeds that look quite pretty, actually. Hopefully, we’ll get it tilled and ready for planting before the snow flies this year.
When garlic-grower, Carol Schmidt of Pelican Rapids, Minnesota recently invited me to her home for a garlic-tasting party, I accepted without hesitation.
A couple of garlic-loving friends joined me on a sunny Saturday for the drive to Schmidt’s farm, anxious to experience our first garlic-tasting party.
As soon as we arrived on the farm, Schmidt walked us to her garden where she showed us some of the garlic still in the ground. Roly-poly bulbils, clones of the mother bulb buried under the soil, were bursting at the tops of their sturdy, tall green stems. Schmidt explained these mini-bulbs can be planted and will grow to be large bulbs if they are treated like normal garlic cloves. In the fall, Schmidt plants garlic cloves two inches deep into the soil leaving at least six inches of space between each. She is careful to be sure each clove is planted with its root end down and the tips all facing in the same direction. She tucks them in for the winter with a blanket of newspaper and two inches of chopped straw. It seems I should be able to do this, gardener or not.
The tasting party took place in Schimdt’s dining room where she had a table of garlic prepared roasted, sliced raw, minced in olive oil and some baked on toast. An array of palate cleansers were on the center of the table.
I learned that not all garlic tastes alike. Some is bitter, some is bland. Some is creamy, some is sticky. Some burns the mouth. Some brings tears to the eyes. It all sends a strong aroma into the air.
I had some questions for Schmidt regarding garlic.
How did you get interested in growing garlic?
About thirty years ago while working as a substitute County Extension Agent in Virginia, Minnesota, a client gave me a head and some bulbils of what she called hard-necked garlic. The flavor difference between it and grocery store garlic was astonishing and I have kept that variety growing ever since. I now know it is in the Rocambole garlic group, a group which some people consider to be the best-tasting garlic with the most complex flavors. Then, some years ago, I read an article about the new food rage “Gourmet Garlic” and realized that I unknowingly had been growing gourmet garlic for 30 years. Then I read “The Complete Book of Garlic,” by Ted Meredith and was completely hooked on tasting as many garlic varieties as I could.
What is the most difficult thing about growing garlic?
Garlic is quite easy to grow. It is planted in the fall and mulched to keep the weeds down and to keep it from heaving in the spring. I fertilize in the fall before planting and once or twice in the spring before the end of May. It sometimes is a little tricky to decide when to harvest (usually when about 40% of the leaves have died back). For me, the most difficult part is limiting how much I grow. We can only eat so much garlic!
The U of MN Extension has an excellent fact sheet on garlic in Minnesota at: http://www.extension.umn.edu/
How many varieties of garlic do you grow? How do you choose them?
Last fall I planted twenty varieties of garlic. I plan to buy new ones for tryout this fall.
I am trying to grow at least one garlic variety from each of the ten garlic groups that we can grow fairly easily in Minnesota. I also am trying to find the “best” garlic for the ways we use garlic: sauteing, roasting, infusing in oil and raw (e.g. in mayonnaise). Some garlics are good for one or two uses, but not the others. The taste and appearance of a garlic variety will vary depending on how and where it is grown, so I am growing my own to try to get the most consistent flavor.
This year at the Garlic Festival, I will also be choosing for appearance–I want the prettiest purple garlics. And I plan to buy some of every variety of Rocambole that I can find in an attempt to determine if the Rocambole I have been growing is already a named variety or deserves its own name.
What’s the difference between the garlic we buy from farmers markets and the garlic we buy in the grocery store?
Most grocery store garlic is from California, China or Argentina and is either a variety called California Early or California Late. Both are known for their long storage ability and excellent yields. They are not known for their excellent taste.
Farmers’ market garlic may be the same as store-bought, but it is more likely to be one of the more flavorful gourmet garlics and very often will be a named variety. If you want to get consistent flavor, you should buy the same variety from the same grower each year, or grow your own.
What do you think about the garlic in jars that is available in grocery stores?
I have not tried it and since I grow my own, I probably will not. If I weren’t able to grow my own, I would buy some to compare it to fresh.
How should garlic be stored?
Research shows that fresh garlic keeps best if stored around 57 degrees F. with a relative humidity of 45 to 50%. It will sprout if kept between 40 and 50 degrees and dry out if kept warmer than 63 degrees F. Our storage spot is usually about 60 degrees with 60% humidity and the garlic seems to store well.
Some garlics store better than others. Garlics in the Silverskin group are the longest storing and those in the Turban group, the shortest.
I also pickle and freeze (in a non-defrosting freezer) whole cloves of my Rocambole garlic. I have not tried freezing any other varieties. And I dehydrate slices for garlic powder.
Do you have a favorite garlic dish?
We like to crush garlic, sprinkle it with salt to taste, squish it into a slurry with the back of a spoon, add an equal amount of a nice California olive oil (Lucero Manzanillo is wonderful for this) and drizzle it over corn-on-the-cob, eggs-over-easy on new potatoes or dip fresh bread in it. We usually do a head at a time and keep it refrigerated till we use it up–but we do not keep it for more than a week because of the danger of botulism.
I left Carol Schmidt’s home with a hanger full of curing Rocambole garlic that she took from her front porch. My head was dizzy with all I had learned. Once again, I am motivated to grow my own garlic. I’ll save some cloves from the heads of garlic Schmidt gave me. I’ll also pick up a couple of bulbs while I’m at the Minnesota Garlic Festival that will be held this year on August 11th at the McLeod County Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, Minnesota. When you are at the Festival, look for Carol Schmidt heading up the first ever garlic growing contest: “The Big, The Small and The Ugly.” Find details about the contest here.
You can read more about garlic and my time with Carol Schmidt in my column this week. Click here to get to that column.
All-Purpose Garlic Crostini
- 1 baguette
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 2 chubby cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cut the baguette into 1/4-inch-thick round slices. Whisk the olive oil, garlic, black pepper, salt and cayenne in a small bowl. Brush each side of the bread rounds with the olive oil mixture. Arrange the slices in a single layer on a baking sheet.
Bake the prepared bread rounds in preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, turning the rounds over half-way into the baking time. Remove crostini from oven when they are golden brown and crisp. Cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
All-Purpose Blueberry-Plum Sauce
- 2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed
- 2 cups chopped plums
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger-root
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary, basil or thyme
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- coarse salt and pepper
In a large skillet, combine blueberries, plums, sugar, ginger, fresh herbs and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer the mixture gently until plums begin to break down, 15 to 20 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper. Let cool completely before using or storing in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.
Serve with All-Purpose Crostini and softened cream cheese or goat cheese.
Tips from the cook
- Just because this sauce is seasoned with fresh herbs doesn’t mean it can’t be used with all things sweet. Try it on ice cream, French toast, pancakes, toasted bagels and even cheesecake.
- It’s the perfect match for chicken and pork. Spread it on a tortilla when you make your next wrap.
- This Sauce and Crostini travel well. I got the Sauce recipe several years ago from a friend I was going on a camping/canoe trip with at Lake of the Woods. (Remember Ann? I’ve shared some of her great recipes on this blog.) She suggested I make it to take along. I did. We had it at base camp the night before we took off in our canoes for five days. It was a hit with my group of 9 camping/canoeing buddies.
- Crumble crostini to make crunchy croutons to sprinkle on salad. Use the crostini to hold your favorite topping. This time of year, when tomatoes are fresh from the garden, a traditional bruschetta topping is amazing.