It was around October last year, midway through my first year of residency. The senior on duty was running a little late and therefore brought breakfast along with her. When the patient rush died down a little, she opened up a piece of paratha and achaar wrapped hastily in aluminium foil, and politely offered me some. I took a bite, and the flavours exploded in my mouth.
That pickle was something I had never tasted before. It contained whole cloves of garlic pickled with the usual Indian spices. While had had achaar before, lehsun ka achaar was new to me. It still had the familiar punch of garlic but it was subdued, accented with the other spices. It wasn’t aggressive, but rather much more rounded. And garlic does have the magical ability to metamorphose, provided you deal with it correctly. This week, we will explore the tamer side of the mighty clove.
Garlic dishes range from super-aggressive, like the toum we talked about last week, to incredibly mild. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum lies the simple Western side dish of greens sautéed with chopped garlic. Using chopped or sliced garlic instead of garlic paste produces a milder flavour, as less allicin is formed. Pickling garlic also reins in some of the harshness, as in the Iranian seer torshi or our very own lehsun ka achaar.
Another interesting way of modifying garlic is the now trendy black garlic, which involves cooking it at a very low temperature for a very long period of time. You could use a sous vide machine, a dehydrator or a fermentation if you happen to have those lying around, although Joshua Weissman claims that you get a pretty decent product using just a rice cooker set at the “keep warm” setting. This very low and slow cook turns the cloves jet black, and the flavours transform completely. I haven’t tasted black garlic myself but I asked a friend who described it as “sour yet syrupy, like sweetish vinegar and tamarind”. It is ideal for compound butters, marinades and even salads.
Of course, the commonest technique used to mellow down garlic flavour is by cooking it in a pan with oil. As bits of garlic cook, they mellow in flavour and infuse the oil with a pleasant note of garlic. Classic examples include spaghetti aglio olio and garlic bread, where you do get a dominant note of garlic, which never overwhelms with its intensity.
Many Indian dishes start with a mix of onions, ginger and garlic, and most Chinese stir fries employ a mix of ginger, garlic and spring onion. The garlic in this case acts as part of a unit, contributing to the overall complexity of the dish, although dishes like chilli garlic pork can use a large amount of chopped garlic which stands out. The intensity of garlic flavour also depends a great deal on when you add it to the pan. Add it at the start and the flavours tend to mellow out during cooking; add it later and you get a much stronger flavour.
Halve a whole bulb of garlic, husk and all, drizzle a little bit of oil and salt and roast it in the oven wrapped in foil on low for around forty-five minutes. What you end up with is softened cloves of garlic that can be squeezed out of the husk like toothpaste. It has a mellow yet very recognisable garlic flavour. It turns light brown, thanks to the caramelization of natural sugars which alliums contain a lot of, lending it notes of toasty sweetness. Garlic in this form is perfect for slathering on toast, or for making a French bistro classic.
“Poulet aux quarante gousses d’ail” translates to “chicken with forty cloves of garlic”. That might sound like an ungodly amount, but the cooking process transforms the garlic’s potency into pure deliciousness. The chicken and garlic are cooked in butter, followed by the addition of a few herbs and of course wine, which not only scrapes the brown bits off the bottom of the pan (a technique called deglazing) but also forms the liquid to cook the dish through. What you end up with is perfectly cooked chicken and soft cloves of garlic with a mellow, sweet and complex flavour.
To me, toum and chicken with forty cloves are like bookends of an amazing spectrum of garlic dishes. The humble clove of garlic, given the right treatment, can be made into anything from a aggressively potent sauce to an incredibly mellow garniture. When it comes to harnessing the power of garlic, you have all the power. And with great power comes great responsibility. Use it well.