I started harvesting garlic a few days ago. Technically, I ought to wait a little longer to make sure it is totally “cured” for better storage – but, since we’re going to eat it in a couple of days anyway, it really doesn’t matter. I’ll let most of it cure before harvesting, but there is simply no reason not to enjoy this delectable treat as soon as possible. Fresh garlic is nothing like what you find in the grocery stores: the cloves are sweet and juice, the wrappers soft and fleshy, and there’s a sort of lemon-butter aroma on top of all the complex garlicky flavors.
If you are a farmers’ market shopper this is the time of year to indulge in all the goodness that garlic has to offer. And if you are not a farmers’ market shopper, here are a number of garlic-related reasons why you should be:
1) There are two main types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Both are tasty, but hardneck garlic is specifically grown for its flavor, and is prized by gourmet chefs. Softneck garlic is the kind you often see in braids: hardneck garlic, having a hard neck (obviously), can’t be braided. The softneck varieties have better storage capacities….which means, this is invariably the kind you are going to find in the grocery store, the kind that keeps better, but tastes less exciting.
2) But that’s not all. Not only is the grocery-store garlic the less tasty type, it is also, almost certainly, grown in China, which grows 75% of the world’s garlic. Here’s a depressing little article about all the weird and nasty stuff that has quite likely been done to that garlic in the produce aisle.
3) Also, the Chinese bleached arsenic-laden grocery store garlic is probably at least a year old. To give you a sense of just how elderly these dry unpleasant-flavored bulbs are: usually by the time they get from the original producer into the hands of the buyer, they are already sprouting. But keep in mind, softneck garlic is grown for its storage qualities….it shouldn’t start sprouting for quite a while! IN fact, my hardneck garlic from last year (which is supposedly good for only a few months) still looks better than conventional grocery garlic…and I’m bringing in this year’s harvest! This makes me pause and wonder…just how old IS that stuff??? I’ve heard anything from 13 months, to two years. But obviously the big chains don’t want you to know that!
4) Hardneck garlic is not only impossible to find in the grocery produce section, it is also alarmingly expensive to order online, for seed or for eating. I despaired of ever getting any good garlic seed stock, until I arranged to have a big box of German Red sent from a seasoned organic grower I know up in Wisconsin. His garlic was fabulous, and I’ve been adding to that stock for several years now. So a word to the wise: if you are keen to plant your own garlic, buy the bulbs from a grower you know! Even if they seem expensive at market (I know a few growers who sell for $3 / bulb! Mine is a steal at $1 / bulb) it is still likely to be far more affordable than anything you order from a seed catalogue or gourmet shop. Plus, you can ask the grower for advice on cultivation, and pick out the exact bulbs you like. You may even be able to persuade your friendly neighborhood farmer to give you a discount on a bulk order.
5) And, you SHOULD grow your own garlic….even if you only have room for a little. It’s very easy. Simply prepare some rich well-drained soil, with a lot of organic matter, in late summer. Around the time of first frost, separate each bulb into cloves (don’t separate them too early, or they might start sprouting too soon!). Plant each clove about 2-4 inches deep, about 4 inches apart, with the pointy side up and the blunt side down. Mulch heavily with straw (I’ve tried a lot of mulches, and believe me, straw is by far the best).
And then, just wait. Little green shoots will emerge probably before midwinter, and then in the spring those shoots will really take off.
In mid to early June, hardneck garlic puts out a topsetting bulb, called a “scape.” It will grow in fanciful loops and curls, and should be plucked off when it is about the right size and shape to make a bracelet (otherwise, it saps the growing power from the underground bulb).
You can wear it to keep vampires away (especially the Twilight variety), but you’re better off eating it. Garlic scapes are a delicacy, fried or sautéed or pureed into pesto, or added to sauces for a mild garlic flavor, but you do want to pick them while they are still young and tender. When they get larger, scapes get tough and non-cook-worthy. Here are a few garlic-scape recipes to keep handy:
Garlic stops growing by midsummer (it’s a day-sensitive allium) but will need to loaf about in the ground a bit, if you want it for long keeping. Hardneck varieties are ready to harvest when the bottom four leaves have turned brown and dry, but the upper leaves are still green. With softneck varieties, though, you want to wait for all the leaves to turn brown and dry and flop over on the ground.
6) Garlic should be stored in a cool dry place, but NOT in the fridge. Refrigerate it, and it will suffer the delusion that it has been planted, and winter is coming, and it’s time to sprout. If you don’t have a cool dry place to store a large amount of garlic, you can freeze it, though the freezing detracts somewhat from flavor and texture. And of course, once it comes out of the freezer, it will quite likely escape from dormancy and begin, dutifully, to sprout. Garlic is reliable that way. IN fact, in terms of satisfaction and sustainability, it might just be the very best homegrown investment you will ever make.
Even babies love fresh hardneck garlic