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Groundwork: Growing Great Garlic

Many vegetables come and go in three months, but for garlic there are only three months when this abiding member of the onion family is not in the garden. Starting now.

In recent weeks, the green stems have been shriveling and turning an off-white color, signaling the time to lift and store (and use!) the mature bulbs. Fresh garden cloves have a mild sweetness and pungency to them unknown in garlic that has been stored for months, and this freshness pervades whatever dish they take part in.

Green Spring's veggie garden in high summer. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washinton Post)

There are hundreds of varieties. Most sold in supermarkets are of a soft-neck strain called silverskin. Read: good keepers, excellent garden fresh, but just a slice of the garlic universe. Soft-necks, hard-necks and elephant garlic are the three basic types. Soft-necks are the type used for braiding: They generally don't flower but are productive and good keepers. Hard-necks do send up a flower stalk or green scape in spring (best removed to increase bulb size) but don't keep as long as soft-necks. Though they produce fewer cloves per bulb, the varieties offer a broader range of garlic flavors, from mild to hot. Elephant garlic produces oversize bulbs with milder cloves.

You can spend a small fortune on named varieties of garlic, and often the seed catalogs are sold out by late September. So if you are into trying Western Rose or Chinese Pink or Russian Red, you'd better get your order in by the end of this month, from catalogs such as Territorial Seed Co., Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny's Selected Seeds.

The cloves are planted in October with the tips about an inch or two below the surface. They send up grasslike shoots in the fall, hunker down for the winter and then grow with a vengeance through the spring, finally bulbing and maturing in July and early August.
They are perfectly winter hardy here (with good soil drainage) but I have found that a light mulch of straw of shredded leaves will retain soil moisture, retard weeds and generally promote more vigor.

Elephant garlic begins to bloom, signaling harvest time. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

I know gardeners who simply buy bulbs from supermarkets (organically raised, preferably) and plant the cloves of these, hence getting perfectly acceptable fresh garlic the following summer at a discount. Pick the largest bulbs you can find, whose cloves will produce big bulbs, in turn. Or you could get bulbs from farmers markets. Store them until October planting time in a cool, dry place with good air circulation, but not in the fridge, which, as Green Spring's Cindy Brown points out, will confuse the bulb and spur premature growth.

Summer's heat continues to spur lush growth at the garden, and tomatoes are coming in, along with beans, peppers and cucumbers. The first of the tomatoes are ripening after a slow start, and in spite of the scare of late blight disease, the tomato plants at Green Spring are having an unusually good year. The spicy sweet Sungold vines are now smothering the trellis used in the spring for peas.

Cindy Brown harvests a Poona Kheera cucumber. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

But check out this cucumber from India. Named Poona Kheera, the fruits are about five inches long, plump and covered in a russeted skin when ripe. Don't be put off by the look of the skin; the flesh is crisp and juicy and sweet.

But back to garlic, and this week's yummy recipe.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: Garlic planted in gardens in October is ready to be harvested. The fresh garlic available in farmers markets is stupendous, so take advantage of its sweetness now instead of storing it. Roasting garlic makes it even sweeter. The sauce in this recipe is similar to an aioli, but not as much work.

Lots of other summer goodies are available now as well, so I thought succotash would pair nicely with the garlic. I was too lazy to start the outdoor grill, but I wanted the extra flavor drawn out of the veggies. My cast-iron skillet produced similar results and I got the bonus of staying in the air conditioning.

An inviting summer meal: Grilled Succotash Pasta With Garlic Sauce. (Cynthia A. Brown)

Grilled Succotash Pasta With Garlic Sauce
4 generous servings

For the sauce
2 large heads garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice from 1 lemon (3 tablespoons)
Freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta
3 ears fresh white corn
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium zucchinis (1 pound total)
1 medium Vidalia onion, chopped (1 cup)
1 cup fresh lima beans (may substitute frozen baby limas)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, torn, plus a few whole leaves for garnish
1/4 cup loosely packed mint leaves, chopped
12 to 16 ounces dried fettuccine rigate (ridged pasta holds the sauce better)

For the sauce: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Trim the tops of the heads of garlic so that the cloves are partially exposed. Drizzle with a little oil and wrap each one in a double layer of aluminum foil. Roast for 45 minutes, then unwrap and let cool. Squeeze the cloves into a mini food processor, then add 3 tablespoons of the oil and the lemon juice. Puree to form a smooth sauce; the yield should be a scant 1/2 cup. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the pasta: While the garlic is in the oven, heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Brush the ears of corn with a little of the oil. Reduce the heat to medium and add the ears of corn. Cover and cook, turning them often, so the kernels brown (but do not become blackened); this should take about 6 minutes total. Transfer the ears to a cutting board and let cool, then cut off the kernels to yield 1 1/2 cups.

Return the empty skillet to medium-high heat.

Cut each zucchini lengthwise into 4 slices about 1/4 inch thick. Brush both sides of each slice with a little of the oil and place in the skillet. Cook for about 1 minute on each side until golden, then transfer to a cutting board. Cut each slice into 1-inch squares.

Add the remaining oil (from the two tablespoons) to the skillet; when it’s hot, add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring, until it is translucent. Add the lima beans and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring, then add the salt, pepper to taste, oregano, corn, zucchini, basil and mint. Transfer to a large serving bowl.

For the pasta: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain and add to the bowl of vegetables, reserving a cup of the cooking water.

When ready to serve, add the sauce to the vegetables and pasta. If the mixture seems dry, add some of the reserved pasta cooking water.

Divide among individual plates; garnish with basil leaves. Serve warm.

By Adrian Higgins  |  August 10, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, garlic, recipes  
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Garlic was a revelation for me this year - how easy and undemanding it is. I am totally hooked. And I planted sprouting garlic, did not even go and buy garlic to plant. This year, I will buy the fattest heads I can find.


Posted by: rowandk | August 10, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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