Harnessing the Multitudes of Garlic

BY Ari LeVaux TIMEJanuary 31, 2023 PRINT

I still have a lot of garlic from last year’s harvest. So to make sure I get through it all before the new crop comes in, I have increased my consumption. Thanks to this project, I’ve been cooking garlic as if it’s a vegetable, rather than a spice.

And given that garlic is plant material, but not a fruit or nut, it isn’t wrong to call it a vegetable, even if we usually use it as a spice. It’s also an herb, believe it or not. We normally think of herbs as leafy plants, and while it may not look like it, a clove of garlic is actually an entire plant. The white fleshy part that we eat is a modified leaf, while the plant’s root and stem are confined to the scabby thing on the bottom of the clove. The center of that structure is the stem, and the bulbous ring around the stem is a set of baby roots. But the majority of the clove is technically a leaf.

This pungent leaf isn’t green, like most leaves, because it grows underground with no exposure to sunlight, so its cells don’t make chlorophyll. But according to plant physiologists, it’s a leaf, which makes garlic an herb, as well as a spice and a vegetable.

To many garlic lovers, engaging the multitudes of garlic is a completely normal approach. In addition to its many taxonomic classifications, garlic can have several personalities in a meal, depending on how much heat it absorbs.  When cooked long enough, garlic loses its spice and develops a resiny sweetness, while the food it’s cooked with gains a more savory flavor. If you overcook garlic it becomes bitter, so don’t do that. And when added raw, garlic imparts its lively spice.

Thanks to all of these possible flavors, many people add garlic more than once to a meal, with whole cloves or large chunks going in early for savory sweetness, and minced garlic at the very end for a feisty hint of pizazz. Multiple garlic addition is a technique perfectly suited to my agenda of expedited garlic consumption.

One of my favorite ways to add garlic more than once is on pasta. Any sauce you could imagine serving over pasta, be it marinara, clam sauce, or carbonara, is going to benefit from being cooked with garlic. And then, I also add minced raw garlic, along with olive oil and perhaps grated cheese, to the hot, freshly cooked noodles, and toss it all together before I add the sauce. This is my standard pasta procedure even when I’m not trying to eat through my garlic at an accelerated clip. It’s just sound flavor management.

Another way that I like to use garlic more than once is in a simple Asian-style rice dish seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, and twice-added garlic. I start by cooking a pot of rice and add some whole garlic cloves to the pot when the rice is about half-cooked. The cloves steam atop the rice and get deliciously soft. When the rice is done, I toss the rice and cloves with freshly pressed or minced raw garlic and equal parts soy sauce and sesame oil. The hot rice cooks the raw garlic enough to blunt its edge, similar to what happens with the hot pasta, while it still retains plenty of firepower. Just remember when adding raw garlic that it will linger on your breath a lot longer than cooked, so check your calendar and use your judgment.

Another recipe in my enhanced garlic routine is oven-poached cloves in olive oil, along with potatoes and meat. I use deer meat but use a recipe that I’ve adapted from a classic recipe for olive oil-poached fish. You can use the protein of your choice.

Oven-Poached Garlic

You can also cook this recipe with fish, rather than with red meat. If doing so, reduce the heat to 275 degrees F before adding the fish, and cook the fish for about 25 minutes, or until flaky and done.

Serves 2

  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 3 medium-sized potatoes, sliced to 1/2-inch thickness
  • Sprig of fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon of dried
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 12 large cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 pound tender red meat, sliced to 1/2-inch thick

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and pour the oil into a 12-inch cast iron skillet. Lay the potato slices in the oil; their bulk should raise the oil level above them. If not, add more oil to cover them. Add the thyme, bay leaves, and salt, and put the skillet in the oven.

When the potatoes start to soften, about 20 minutes, add the whole garlic cloves. If you add them too soon, they’ll turn bitter. As soon as you add the garlic the air will fill with an irresistible aroma. After about 15 minutes of that olfactory torture, add the meat.

The meat should take about 15 minutes to cook. You can track progress with a meat thermometer or by cutting with a knife and checking the color. When it’s done, remove the contents with a slotted spoon, holding it above the pan so the excess oil can drip back in. Serve the garlic-infused oil-poached meal on a plate, next to a slice of buttered bread. As you eat, smear the soft, sweet cloves of garlic onto the bread.

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Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.
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