FLASH IN THE PAN: The facts of garlic

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This time of year, the biology of garlic becomes impossible to ignore. A green shoot appears inside every clove of every head of garlic in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a reminder that a clove of garlic isn’t just some lily-white bulb that exists solely for our eating pleasure. It’s a complete plant, with goals and habits, not to mention a set of roots, a stem and leaves.

The white, fleshy part of the clove — the part we typically eat — is a modified leaf that functions as a food-storage organ. The flat scab at the bottom of the clove is technically the stem of the plant. And on one edge of the stem, a tight cluster of tiny root bulbs waits for a signal to grow. This time of year, on the other side of the stem, inside the white part, a green spear appears, consisting of about 10 tightly-wrapped leaves.

Many cooks will pry out this offending growth and cast it aside. They are wasting time and garlic, in my opinion, because that green core is the freshest, most nutritious part of the plant. It has a reputation for being bitter, but I don’t taste that. Or maybe I just don’t mind a little bitter with my vibrant, green, garlicky zing. 

With the appearance of the shoot, the clove around it begins to soften, but it remains usable as long as the clove doesn’t turn yellow, which is the first stage of rot. Eventually it will shrivel and be shrugged off like a snakeskin by the growing shoot inside. Until that time, it’s all edible. It all tastes like garlic. 

I slice my sprouted cloves lengthwise to display their insides, drawing attention to those internal parts like a jazz musician hitting a funky note extra hard, so everyone knows he meant it.

Pan-fried, in butter and olive oil, these beautiful bits of garlic anatomy gain sweetness without losing their savory garlic gravitas. I add these nuggets of flavor to pizza, omelets, sandwiches and soups, scattering them across my meals like fistfuls of pine nuts atop a bowl of pasta.

Aspiring gardeners will sometimes be moved by a sprouted clove’s obvious desire to grow, and they will plant sprouted cloves in the ground, or on the windowsill. This act will be rewarded, months later, with something like green garlic. A 10-inch tall leafy stem, but no bulb.

If, on the other hand, the clove that is currently sprouting in your pantry had been planted last fall, you would have a real garlic plant on your hands, tall and robust, with fat cloves forming on the below-ground stem.

I planted a big garlic patch last fall, which is one of the reasons I have no interest in planting sprouted cloves. I am a lot more interested in eating the sprouted cloves. But even if I didn’t have a patch, I wouldn’t bother. It’s as much of a waste of time as digging out the green shoot. I keep it in the kitchen, and celebrate its quirky beauty and deep flavor as if I’ve been waiting all year for sprouted-garlic season.

But if growing garlic is something you want to take on — and you should — now is a perfect time to get started. Just not with sprouted cloves. It’s too early to start digging or planting anything, but is a great time for scheming and planning. September sounds a long way off, but we all know it will pounce on summer’s bubble like a cat. We might as well be ready. 

Aspiring garlic-growers must identify a spot that will be vacant and ready to go in October, by which time the garlic should be planted. Another important off-season task is to identify which kind of garlic to plant. Check the farmers market for examples of varieties — preferably hardneck, the flowering kind —  that grow in your area, and ideally purchase your seed garlic locally. The garlic for sale in August should be fully cured and ready for planting, but if you have any doubts, ask the farmer, who will most likely be flattered by your interest in growing their garlic.

One of my favorite ways to cook garlic as the centerpiece of a dish — garlic as vegetable — is flavored with oyster sauce. When the scapes come next month, and the new garlic a month later, I will apply the same recipe to those other lovely parts of the garlic plant.

Sprouted Garlic in Oyster Sauce

Although it contains no added sugar, this recipe tastes sweetened thanks to all that sweet, old garlic. The dish can absorb most any other vegetable or protein you might want to add, and swell into a larger meal if you choose. This recipe makes four tapas-sized portions. 

2 tablespoons olive oil1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
two heads of sprouted garlic
½ x ½ inch cube of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons of oyster sauce
1 pod of star anise 
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ cup water or stock

Trim the bottoms of the cloves if you wish. Slice each sprouted clove lengthwise, as thinly as you safely can. Fry the garlic halves slowly in the butter and oils on medium/low, along with the ginger, anise and any extra proteins and veggies you may be using.

When the garlic slices are lightly browned all around and thoroughly sweet, add the oyster sauce, black pepper, soy sauce and stock. Stir well, and cook slowly until the sauce thickens to your liking, about 10 minutes. Remove the anise pod and serve, perhaps on rice. 

You could garnish it with a green herb, like cilantro or basil, but it’s hardly necessary. Sprouted garlic garnishes itself.