|The Garlic Lovers' Choice: Hard Neck|
|Right Food for the Season - Late Summer|
|Written by Jane Ward|
The garlic lovers at my house have become a bit obsessed over these last few weeks with finding and buying fresh farm stand garlic. Cutting into a clove from a fresh dug bulb is a revelation for those of us more used to garlic past its prime, that rubbery, sap-sticky, sometimes bitter garlic that has been languishing, sprouting, even rotting in supermarket displays. A fresh clove sounds as crisp as an apple under a sharp knife’s blade, and is just as juicy and clean tasting.
Most of the garlic found at the farms is the type known as hard neck garlic. Soft neck garlic might be the type most people are familiar with, its larger outer cloves clustered around a center of smaller, irregularly shaped ones and a flexible papery shoot. Hard neck garlic, in contrast, possesses a stiff straw-like stalk at the center of a bulb that holds fewer but much more regularly shaped cloves around it.
Soft neck is the more common choice for grocery stores because its shelf life is longer. Hard neck is more perishable, but variety and the uniformity of cloves make it a pleasure to use in recipes. And if you are one of the many consumers looking for garlic scapes in farms in the early part of June, know that hard neck is the type of garlic that produces the scape. Planting this type of garlic provides the farmer with two saleable crops.
Recently at two farmers’ markets we were able to talk hard neck garlic with a few garlic farmers. There are three common varieties of hard neck garlic – Rocambole, Purple Stripe, and Porcelain – and most vendors grew all three as well as a few (and in one case, many more than a few) of the less common varieties, each with its own distinctive flavor when sampled raw.
Hot, biting, spicy; sweet, mellow, elegant; nutty, rich, robust – these are all words you’ll hear when you begin to talk hard neck garlic with the experts. Vendors at markets often take the time to carefully list taste characteristics for the customer’s benefit, and also enjoy talking flavor when asked. A couple of them pointed out that taste differences matter most and are most pronounced when the garlic is used raw in preparations, such as in basil pesto. When cooked, it was added, all garlic seems to attain similar levels of sweet, nutty and mellow.
Take the time to buy and taste test a few different varieties of the hard neck garlic out right now at farmers’ markets in New England. Since starting the quest for good garlic, I find myself thinking more about matching certain garlic to certain dishes. When I make an uncooked and simple spicy garlic and herb oil for pizza bianco, I look for garlic that is sweet rather than hot to balance the red pepper flakes. When I want to roast garlic to spread on bread, I might think about plumper cloves rather than a certain flavor profile.
For the following soup, garlic is roasted with another late summer offering – eggplant – and for this recipe you could use any garlic you like, or a mixture of what you have on hand. Eggplant adds depth and interest to the assertive garlic, while lemon juice and tahini brighten the entire finished soup.
Roasted Eggplant and Garlic Soup
(adapted from The Culinary Institute of America Book of Soups)
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 cups peeled, cubed eggplant
1 yellow onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 carrot, diced
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced
4 cups chicken broth or stock
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 Tbsp. tahini (sesame seed paste)
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
the juice of ½ fresh lemon, or more to taste
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the garlic cloves in a square of aluminum foil. Set aside.
Place the eggplant, onion, celery, and carrot in a baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer.
Place the garlic directly on an oven rack. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables. Cover the pan with foil, place this pan in the oven, and roast the vegetables for 20 minutes.
Remove the foil and raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Continue roasting until the eggplant and the garlic are very soft, about 15 more minutes. Remove both from the oven. When the garlic has cooled enough to handle, squeeze the garlic from its skin.
Combine the roasted vegetables with the potato, chicken broth and thyme in a large soup pot and simmer until the potatoes are tender and mashable, about 25 minutes. Remove the thyme stalk and discard.
Add to the soup pot the tahini, salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and stir well to combine. Simmer for another few minutes.
Using a stick blender, puree the soup in the pot until very smooth. (Alternately, the soup may be pureed in a conventional blender in batches.) Simmer the soup for another few minutes. Taste and correct seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, and lemon juice as necessary.