- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

“It would be a sad world without garlic.”

These words are painted on a kitchen cupboard of Pittsburgh artist Johno Prascak. I took a garden photography class up to his house to explore his wonderfully creative landscape, and on a tour of the house I saw this quote and have taken it to heart.

If there’s one thing that draws me from the garden, it’s a gentle breeze wafting through the tomato vines, carrying the sweet scent of garlic and olive oil from the house. Some days it even brings me down from the orchard, a quarter mile away.

For many families, that aroma conveys love. No wonder. Is there really anything better than coming home from school or work and opening the door to be greeted by the smell of a wonderful home-cooked meal containing garlic simmering in a pan?

When he was younger, my 19-year-old son and I loved to cook together and took joy in using as much garlic as possible, two or three heads (yes, heads) for a pot of pasta. When we go out to eat, we try to explain to the waitress that we want extra garlic in the dish, more than you might think humanly possible. But rarely is it enough because there can never be a dish cooked with too much garlic.

That said, always warn guests about your secret. When I served my brother a chicken dish laden with garlic, he devoured two helpings and raved, but his wife’s reaction later was not as enthusiastic.

“What were you feeding him?” she asked. “It’s coming out of his pores. He’s been sleeping on the couch for two days.” So remember to feed your significant other lots of garlic and you’ll cancel each other out.

The garlic you pick from the garden will always surpass what’s in the grocery store, just like a homegrown tomato does. It’s the simplest of all crops to grow, rarely bothered by pests or disease. I’ve always dreamed of growing it commercially because of its ease of cultivation.

Most important, start with good seed garlic and plant the second week of October in the North. Buy from a local farmer or order from a good garlic farm. Supermarket garlic won’t do. Those bulbs are treated with a chemical that inhibits sprouting.

I’ve ordered from Bobba-Mike’s Garlic Farm for more than a decade and have never been disappointed. They offer quality garlic at reasonable prices. My favorites are Music and German White. Their Web site is www.garlicfarm.com.

Separate seed garlic heads into cloves and use the biggest for planting. Each clove should be planted a few inches deep in good garden soil. Big cloves grow into big bulbs. Keep the smaller ones for the kitchen.

The bed should be made of nice loam improved with organic matter such as compost, mushroom manure, well-aged manure or dehydrated manure. Mulch the bed with straw after planting and wait until the early spring when the greens sprout.

Garlic greens are a chef’s treat and are hard for everyone except for the lucky home garlic grower to find. Garlic greens have a milder and subtler flavor than chopped garlic.

Some growers plant garlic very close together just so they can provide greens to restaurants. In the home garden, harvest just a little from each plant because the greens provide energy for the bulb. They can be used raw in salads and added to cooked dishes, as desired.

Varieties called hard necks send up a seed stalk called a scape in early summer. For the biggest bulbs, the scape must be removed so the plant puts its energy into the bulb. The scapes are a mild delicacy prized by many cultures because of the subtle flavor and texture.

In July, the bulbs are ready to pick when the greens are more than 50 percent brown. In good soil, the plants can be pulled up by the stalk at soil level. In harder soil, gently work a fork around the bulbs to loosen them and dig them out.

Bulbs that get cut should go right to the kitchen to be used within the next couple of weeks. All other garlic needs to be cured. Leave stalks attached and hang in a warm dry place for three weeks. If possible, leave the stalks on for long-term storage, too. If not, put the heads in an onion bag and hang in a cool dry place.

Many varieties will store for more than six months. And don’t worry: You’ll know when garlic is starting to spoil by the way it smells.

Garlic can be chopped and frozen in plastic bags or mixed with olive oil and frozen. Pieces can then be broken off and added to dishes. Never store garlic in oil at room temperature. This provides conditions for harmful bacterial growth.

Garlic adds something special to most dishes. When combined with butter or olive oil, it can burn easily, so watch carefully when you saute.

The smaller it is chopped, the more it needs watching. Never leave garlic alone on the burner. Keep it moving and over low heat.

There are lots of products out there that allow you to peal and chop garlic without having to handle it. I don’t like any of them. Take a large knife, place it over the clove and smash it with your fist on the knife. Then peel the cloves by hand.

In the words of Johno Prascak, it would be a sad world without garlic. So let’s not be sad.

Super garlic pasta with crabmeat

This simple recipe turned some heads at an indoor picnic for a group of master gardeners. I was worried when I uncovered the dish and the scent overran the room. But gardeners are a hearty lot, and the pasta was quickly gobbled up, leaving only the dish to be returned home.

1 stick (4 ounces) butter

2 heads (3 for the brave) garlic, minced

16 ounces shredded crab meat (I use imitation due to allergies, but whole, peeled shrimp, cooked or uncooked, can also be used)

2 tablespoons fresh chopped oregano

1 cup fresh basil leaves, whole or chopped a little

1 pounds pasta (I prefer fresh or homemade linguini or angel hair)

Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil to cook the pasta.

Melt butter in large pan and add garlic once butter is melted.

Cook garlic on low heat for about 10 minutes. Watch carefully and stir frequently to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add crab (or shrimp) the last 5 minutes and oregano and basil the last two minutes.

While garlic is cooking, cook pasta until al dente. Drain and serve pasta topped with garlic butter, crab (or shrimp) and herb combination.

Sprinkle with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Makes 4 servings.

Garlic and mushroom soup

2 tablespoons butter

3 to 4 heads garlic, minced

2 tablespoons flour

4 14.5-ounce cans beef or chicken broth

Salt and pepper

10 ounces sliced mushrooms

1 bunch scallions, chopped, including greens

Melt butter and cook garlic over very low heat for about 10 minutes, or until softened but not browned.

Slowly stir in flour. Gradually add broth, 4 cups water, salt and pepper to taste and mushrooms and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. Bring back to a boil and add scallions. Remove from heat almost immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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