If you put Rich Sisti of Catalpa Ridge Farm in Wantage on the spot, he’ll say it’s Russian Giant.
For Les Guile of Walnut Grove Farm in Augusta, it’s German Porcelain. For Roman Osadca of Valley Fall Farm in Newton, it’s Spanish Roja. And Ukrainian Red. And German Extra Hardy. And Metechi, Bogatyr and Music.
With hundreds of garlic varieties out there, how can a person possibly choose a single favorite?
That’s one of the questions likely to be addressed this Saturday at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown during “Garlic Day with the Garden State Garlic Society,” a program featuring raw garlic tastings along with cooking demonstrations and talks on growing, harvesting and storing the pungent bulb. But doesn’t all garlic just taste garlicky?
“That’s like saying all apples taste the same,” said Osadca, a chemical engineer who co-founded the Garden State Garlic Society with Sisti to promote and educate the public about the growing and eating of what he calls “fine gourmet garlic.”
To that end, the society is also sponsoring its sixth annual Garden State Garlic Gathering in Old Lafayette Village Oct. 6-7. That event will feature fresh garlic from New Jersey and Pennsylvania farms, as well as garlic-flavored Italian oils and vinegars distributed by Bistro Blends of NJ in Hightstown. “People are crazy about garlic,” said Dee Elkins, a Bistro Blends representative.
And despite an ever-present supply of garlic from California and China, local chefs are increasingly crazy about homegrown heirloom varieties.
“The locally grown has more flavor, and the flavor is better. You have to taste other garlic next to it to appreciate it,” said Michael Peters, chef-owner of Pierre’s in Harding Township.
“Some are a lot more aromatic, some are stronger, some are milder,” noted Mike Ryan, sous chef at Circa in High Bridge. “However much garlic he can give us, we’ll take,” he said of Osadca, who grows about 130 different types.
Peters, too, buys garlic from Osadca, but not exclusively. He’ll buy 30 pounds at a time from a produce broker, and another 10 pounds from Osadca. “I pay a lot more for his garlic than I pay for the supermarket garlic,” said Peters. “I use it in special dishes where the garlic is a main flavor, such as escargot, some fish preparations, and roasted chicken.” Though he has noted subtle differences in the various types of garlic he’s gotten from Osadca, he doesn’t order by variety, however. “All his garlic works very well for me,” he said.
Unlike most fruits and vegetables, garlic does not fully develop its distinctive flavor as it grows. “The flavor of garlic is created at the point of use,” noted Osadca. “When you cut a bulb or bruise or mash it, or run it through a garlic press, you combine two natural chemicals that are in the garlic: an enzyme called alliinase and alliin, a diallyl sulfur compound. These two chemicals mix and instantly create a natural antibiotic, allicin, which gives garlic its aroma, taste, and medicinal properties.” Rich in minerals and in vitamins B1 and C, garlic has antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant and antithrombotic properties.
Garlic’s distinctive flavor manifests itself in three phases, added Osadca: The initial bite, which can be mild to strong; the heat, which can be immediate and continue growing fast or slow, or delayed by as much as 35 seconds, and the aftertaste, or lingering flavors ranging from mild to strong. German Extra Hardy gives immediate heat, he noted, while Spanish Roja and Ukranian Red offer a delayed heat sensation. “Spanish Roja you would use when you want something strong and with a lot of bite. The Ukrainian Red has a nice sweetness. Metchi and Bogatyr have an interesting early finish to the taste pattern,” said Osadca.
Broadly speaking, garlic can be divided into two main categories: hardneck and softneck. Almost all the commercially grown garlic from California and China is allium sativum sativum, or softneck. It is distinguished by a papery stem at the top of the bulb. The garlic primarily cultivated along the Eastern seaboard from Virginia to Canada is allium sativum ophioscorodon, or hardneck. It sends up a rigid curving stalk, or scape, in mid-June. These scapes also can be harvested and used in cooking.
The chefs at Circa bought about 50 pounds of Osadca’s scapes, which were chopped and used as a garlic-like seasoning. “It has a fresher, greener taste,” said Ryan. “You can dice them into salads or stir-fries, or grill them with olive oil,” said Osadca, who harvested about 500 pounds of them. They typically are cut off the plant before they straighten out, for they sap energy from the bulb growing underground.
“Scapes have a long shelf life in moist bags in the refrigerator. I still have some,” added Osadca.
Many chefs prefer working with hardneck garlic because its bulbs are typically composed of seven to nine equally sized cloves, whereas a softneck usually has two to three rings of cloves of varying sizes. “In general, the hardneck varieties are a step higher in flavor and taste than the softnecks,” said Osadca, who harvested about 4,000 pounds of garlic from an acre of land. Both his hardneck and softneck varieties are now curing on drying screens in his barn.
Fresh garlic has been on the farmers’ market scene since July. “Young garlic in July and August is incredibly juicy,” said Osadca. Post-harvest, growers let the bulbs air dry so any dirt clinging to them can easily be brushed off and the skins will become easy to peel off. During this curing period, the bulbs “are slowly dehydrating and the flavors are getting concentrated because the moisture is evaporating,” he added. “By Labor Day they will have developed their own unique character.” Softneck varieties can be held until early March; hardneck types until February. Sprouting is a sign of deterioration.
At Circa, Ryan preserves garlic by roasting it whole, still in its jacket, then squeezing it out of its papery shell and pureeing it. Thus processed, it can be frozen for later use, he said.
When working with fresh garlic, Peters passes on garlic presses. “I just take a knife and tap the clove with it to crack it. The covering should come off easily. Then I cut off the tip, lay the blade on the clove and hit the blade with my fist.” Thus crushed, the garlic is ready to be sauteed or added to a dish.
Cooking should always be done slowly, over low heat in oil or butter to avoid burnt garlic, which will ruin a dish with its bitter taste. That danger can be circumvented by chomping on it raw, which is the way Rich Sisti best enjoys his garlic, perhaps with a piece of bread. “A lot of people like raw garlic, and that’s why they zone in on the different varieties,” he said.