Some pantry items are so universal that it's a wee bit intimidating to write about them.
After all, what can I possibly say that you don't already know about salt? Who doesn't use pepper? Or sugar? Or onions? And how can I choose just one recipe out of the hundreds of thousands that depend on these common ingredients?
I keep those pantry staples — the biggies — on a separate list, and every few months I work up the courage to tackle another one. So, here goes.
Americans didn't really get garlic until fairly recently in our culinary history (the 1940s). Before then, garlic was associated in a derogatory way with the ethnic foods found in working-class immigrant neighborhoods; in diner slang, garlic was Bronx vanilla or Italian perfume. As our world view broadened, so did our palates.
Long before America's culinary awakening, more than 5000 years ago, the people of ancient Egypt cultivated and venerated garlic, imbuing it with sacred qualities (garlic was found in King Tut's tomb) and consuming it to enhance strength and endurance. Migrating tribes and explorers carried garlic throughout Asia. Today, China, South Korea, India, Spain, and the US are primary producers.
One of the world's heathiest foods, garlic has been proven to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. High in vitamins C and B6, selenium and manganese, garlic also is an anti-inflammatory, may help protect against several forms of cancer, and may be beneficial in weight control.
Above all, though, garlic tastes good. Really good.
Garlic is the master ingredient in master sauces like aioli, skordalia, rouille, tarator, curry paste and pesto. Without garlic, this famous chicken dish would be...well, just chicken. From simple veggies to soups and stews, garlic enhances the cooking of dishes from Italy to Cuba, from India to Russia.
Last summer I learned from Marcia, my gardening neighbor and cooking group pal, that garlic is easy to grow. First, choose your variety; there are two main types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Hardneck (what we usually find in the market) has a stronger flavor and is easier to peel.
Then, start with individual cloves of seed garlic or organic garlic from a local farmstand. In a sunny part of your garden, shove the cloves into the ground with your finger, cover, and wait. In 60 days or so, when the green shoots are 8-10 inches tall, you can harvest right then and there, and enjoy these garlic "scallions" in eggs or soup. Or, let the cloves continue to grow, and harvest the new bulbs when the tops dry out and begin to collapse. Pull up the whole plant and hang it in the shade to dry. As the garlic dries, the skin turns paper white, and the flavor intensifies.
The rule of thumb for cooking with garlic is that the finer the chop, the stronger the flavor. Whole cloves impart very mild flavor; sliced cloves have a bit stronger flavor; minced cloves or those put through a garlic press yield the most intense flavor.
You don't need anything but a broad, sharp knife to handle your garlic, though there are dozens of gizmos on the market for everything from peeling to roasting to pressing — and even for removing the garlic smell from your hands (but why bother? — the aroma of garlic is one of the most seductive in the kitchen). To separate cloves, lay the head of garlic on its side. Place your broad-bladed knife on top of the bulb, and smash with the heel of your hand — be firm and decisive, and the bulb will separate into cloves. Repeat the smashing action with individual cloves to remove the peel.
By the way, the 2007 Gilroy Garlic Festival opens in 136 days.
A slightly Asian take on salade Nicoise, this main course salad serves 4. Can be doubled.
1 lb fresh tuna steak
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, smashed but not peeled
1/2 cup water
2 lb whole red new potatoes
1 lb asparagus or green beans, whichever is in season
Rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp oregano
Black pepper to taste
12-15 pitted Kalamata olives
1 ripe tomato, sliced, for garnish
In a large ziploc bag, marinate the tuna in the soy sauce, lemon juice, garlic and water for 1 hour (not longer!) in the refrigerator.
While the fish is marinating, bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the potatoes until fork tender. Drain, slice, and transfer to a large bowl. While the potatoes are still warm, splash them with rice wine vinegar (about 1/3 cup or more). Stir to coat all the potatoes; they will soak up all the vinegar. Let stand.
While the water for the potatoes is boiling, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the sliced asparagus for 2 minutes. Splash with rice wine vinegar, and season with oregano and black pepper. Add to the bowl with the potatoes and mix.
Cook the tuna on the grill or under the broiler; be careful not to overcook. Cut into bite-size pieces.
On a large platter make a bed of the potatoes and asparagus. Scatter the tuna on top. Garnish with olives and sliced tomatoes. Serve at room temperature.
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