Is it ready yet? Checking the garlic; the one on the right was planted three weeks after the two on the left. (Mary Lowther photo)

Is it ready yet? Checking the garlic; the one on the right was planted three weeks after the two on the left. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Garlic a mealtime foundation

Virtually everything he makes starts with the same basic ingredients: onions, peppers and garlic

By Mary Lowther

David studied cooking at Camosun College longer ago than he cares to discuss, which makes him occasionally useful in the kitchen. That wasn’t the most attractive thing about him when we first met (after all, he had a steady job) but it was close. A man trained to wash his own dishes can be a real find.

The other day he was happily chopping and dicing when he asked me if I had ever noticed that virtually everything he makes starts with the same basic ingredients: onions, peppers and garlic. I assured him that a quarter century of keeping the grocery list had been my first clue, but his remark started me thinking about it. Those are really the foundation of so many favourites in many cultures; from Italian pasta sauces through Slavic cabbage rolls all the way to Indian curries, our chefs rely on the big three. Today we will focus on garlic and how to grow our own, but first comes a short digression.

I love the book shelves in thrift shops. Whenever I am in one I look for old cookbooks, the kind that are stained from use and have previous owners’ old family recipes written on the blank pages. More importantly for this column I also look for books on gardening; while most are pretty basic, every once in a while I find a treasure from serious gardeners who know their stuff and can save me years of trial and error. I owe a debt of gratitude to a few of those books.

Garlic’s versatility comes from its savoury flavour that, when omitted, causes diners to scratch their heads, wondering what’s missing. Our taste buds seem to know this bulb contains abundant nutrients vital to our health. Hippocrates prescribed garlic for a number of medical ailments, and it’s no wonder that the Slavic culture used garlic for infection long before science proved garlic boosts the immune system.

Immunity boosting compounds like allicin form when garlic is chopped, crushed or sliced, but disappear quickly if heated too soon. In her book Eating on the Wild Side author Jo Robinson explains that waiting 10 minutes before heating it allows this heat sensitive enzyme to fully develop. We can then fry or bake garlic and still get all its medicinal benefits.

My best find on growing garlic has been Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland, in which he gives a bit of its history, methods he uses and experimenting he’s done. Now that my own garlic is almost ready to harvest, I’m going to follow his advice and remove the scapes (stalks on hard neck garlic) once they have almost straightened up but before they turn woody. Engeland reports that hard neck garlic keeps better in storage when allowed to grow scapes, probably because when the stalks become hard and woody the plant’s hormones send messages to the roots to harden as well. He suggests digging up a few bulbs every now and then to see how far along they are and harvesting the whole lot when they look ready. The timing is different every year; this year will be an earlier harvest I think, because of the thermometer bursting temperatures we have experienced. My garlic is turning brown already and I am hoping the heat hasn’t done them in. I dug three up today and they look OK but not quite ready and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’ll dig them up instead of pulling them out because the soil is rather hard and I don’t want to damage the bulbs.

Science claims our taste buds deteriorate as we get older, along with everything else, but that’s not why I am eating more garlic these days. This is just a really good time to eat immunity boosting foods. I got a great recipe from Chef Michael Williams on Country Grocer’s Cooking On The Coast program that impressed David:

Exalted Burgers:

600 g. ground beef

3 T. hemp hearts

4 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds

1 T. salt

¼ cup molasses

sriracha powder

8 cloves garlic chopped in half

4 thick slices onion

Cut the garlic 10 minutes ahead of time. Then toast them with the cumin seeds in a lightly oiled pan until golden. Add them to everything else except the onion and mix together, then form into patties. Fry until done.

Fry the onion rings until golden. Chef Williams puts the patty on some hummus and garnishes the burger with the fried onions and kimchi, but I just placed the burger and fried onion on a plate with mashed potatoes and a vegetable. I also used maple syrup instead of molasses, and ¼ tsp. chili powder instead of sriracha. David used the mixture to stuff some peppers. It’s a really versatile combination that delivers healthy ingredients deliciously.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.