Great Bulbs of Fire

Bring home the flavor this month with locally grown garlic.

All it takes to create one of the world’s most mouthwatering aromas is to crush garlic cloves and cook them in sizzling oil. Using fresh bulbs makes a difference—and now is the time to find big, beautiful heads of locally grown garlic at farmers markets. By late August and early September, the bulbs are finished drying and curing, which usually takes three to four weeks after they are pulled from the ground. Garlic is tastiest now, yielding plump cloves sheathed in shiny white—packed with spicy aromas and flavors. (Over time, garlic can dry out and yield flavors that are more bitter and pungent.)

It’s great timing in that tomato season is still under way, considering all the delicious combinations you can create with these two simple ingredients (see recipe below).

Because of the key role garlic pays in Italian cooking, many assume it is from the Mediterranean—but, like onions and leeks, it originated in central Asia. A good thing travels fast, and food historians believe that more than 10,000 years ago, nomadic hunter-gatherers began to spread wild garlic beyond its place of origin near the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Egypt, where entombed garlic artifacts made of clay date to 3750 B.C., the bulb was important medicine used to treat everything from tumors to heart problems.

To eat it outright, however, was a habit for the working classes. Garlic was among the provisions given to the slaves building the pyramids and Greek soldiers consumed it as a stimulant to spur courage in war. The ancient aristocracy mainly objected to its stinky qualities; if you reeked of garlic, you could forget about entering certain holy temples in ancient Rome.

During the European Renaissance, the bulb was losing its stigma as dishes like French aïoli—delicious garlicky mayonnaise for dipping potatoes and other foods—became staples from peasant homes to palaces. Indeed, all Europeans except for the English embraced it; not surprisingly, the island’s transplants to the American colonies at first didn’t use it much either.

Great Britain wasn’t alone in shunning garlic for centuries. While many Asian countries make great use of garlic—think of Thai, Vietnamese, or Korean food—it is virtually absent from Japanese cuisine.

But by the 20th century, garlic was making its way into every U.S. kitchen. In the 1970s, famous foodie James Beard became renowned for his recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic and Julia Child introduced many garlic-infused recipes in her classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Today, any garlic lover can find plenty to chew on. From restaurant menus to countless cookbooks, there’s inspiration for cooking garlic every which way. For those of us who enjoy this pungent food, it’s a passion.

Easy Recipe: Red Sauce With Exploding Garlic

This rustic sauce from the book Tomatoes, Garlic, Basil (St. Lynn’s Press, 2010), written by Post-Gazette garden writer Doug Oster, features a clever cooking technique that Oster picked up from local chef Donato Coluccio. Anyone who has overbrowned garlic and ruined a sauce will want to know this easy trick.

Cube four large summer tomatoes (Oster includes seeds and peels, but you can also remove them if you prefer). Slice five garlic cloves, and mince five more. Add the sliced garlic to two tablespoons of olive oil warmed over medium-high heat, and cook for one minute. Add the minced garlic and cook for another 30 seconds. Immediately add one-half cup of cold chicken stock—watch it “explode” out of the pan—to prevent the garlic from cooking further. Lower the heat, add the cubed tomatoes and cook for five minutes. Remove from heat, stir in a cup of chopped fresh basil, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve over pasta. Makes about two cups.

Garlic Lovers’ Festival
Phipps Conservatory showcases local garlic and tomatoes at its sixth annual Red, Ripe and Roasted festival (Sun., Aug. 28, 11 a.m.-5 p.m). Held on the lawns and in the outdoor garden, it’s a family-friendly event with a farmers market, a garlic roast, live cooking demonstrations, tomato and garlic tastings, and fun kids’ activities.

At the ever-popular tomato contest, hopefuls bring ripe tomatoes from their gardens to compete in categories that include ugliest, smallest and largest (winners receive a special gift basket from Phipps). The event’s beneficiary is the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank: By donating a bag of fresh produce, guests will be given free admission to the festival and the Conservatory’s summer flower show.

Info: 412/622-6914,

Local Garlic
Garlic grows well in our region, particularly if it’s cold hardy. At nearby Kretschmann Organic Farm and CSA (, Don and Becky Kretschmann grow several varieties, including Music, a white “porcelain” garlic with a rich, classic taste. It belongs to the category of garlic known as hardneck, generally considered superior and more complex in flavor than softneck (the type generally sold in grocery stores). Hardneck garlic is anchored by a stiff stem at the center and has thinner skin that’s easier to peel, but cloves damage and dry out more easily. Because of its wide distribution, softneck garlic is what most of us have on hand in the kitchen—it’s popular with industrial growers because it can be planted mechanically and stores well. Keep in mind that non-organic garlic may have been treated with sprout inhibitor, pesticides or herbicides.

Variety is the Spice of Life
Experiment with varieties. Whether it’s Georgian Fire, a wickedly spicy reddish-streaked garlic with great flavor, or Purple Italian, an especially pungent variety with easy-to-peel purple cloves, garlic comes in all kinds of flavors and colors. Can you really taste the difference between these and the familiar chubby white garlic at the supermarket? It depends. After cooking, the subtleties in flavor will be harder to notice. But if you’re using raw garlic to make pesto, aïoli or gremolata, the taste can vary quite a bit depending on whether you use a sharp, spicy variety or one with a milder flavor, like the larger-sized Elephant Garlic. Regional garlic growers Enon Valley Garlic ( sell at local farmers markets and will appear at the Phipps’ festival (see sidebar). Enon Valley’s website describes an array of varieties that will make your mouth water.

Is Garlic Really Good For You?
The short answer: Yes. With surprising accuracy, ancient Babylonian healers used it thousands of years ago to treat intestinal bugs among other ailments—by the 1800s, scientist Louis Pasteur verified its powerful antibacterial properties. Today, many studies have documented its ability to suppress the growth of bacteria, even on strains that have grown resistant to commonly used antibiotics. This is true only of uncooked crushed garlic, however, because a
compound called allicin, which is eliminated by cooking, is responsible for suppressing bacteria. Nonetheless, recent studies show health benefits even from cooked garlic ranging from reduction of blood pressure to immune system effects, like warding off the flu.

Categories: Eat + Drink Features