New Zealand garlic is harvested through the summer months and is available most of the year. You can tell it apart from imports because the ends, often trimmed by hand, have a little of the root attached. It’s just as easy to spot Chinese garlic as it looks unnaturally white and is shorn to the end of the bulb. Californian garlic is similar to our local product, although trimmed, and is a good standby when New Zealand garlic sells out.
1. To crush or to chop?
In warm weather keep garlic refrigerated wrapped in kitchen towels, and at other times in a cool dark place, breaking off cloves as required. Here’s a tip: peel a whole head at a time, rather than just a clove or two, and refrigerate the remaining cloves in a covered dish to save you getting stinky fingers every time you want just one clove (peeled garlic will keep in the fridge for more than a week). Garlic can be sharp and biting to taste. It can also increase the heat of a dish with its pungency. When it’s crushed, a chemical reaction takes place as the cells are broken down. Crushed paste or juice is very potent. If you want less of a hot bite, chop it, or if you prefer a milder flavour still, slice it. Garlic is strongest used raw and mellows during cooking – the longer you cook it, the milder it becomes. Garlic with smaller bulbs and purplish skin tends to be the hottest.
2. Black magic
Black garlic – garlic that’s been slowly cooked at around 70°C for four to six weeks until its composition changes – has twice the antioxidant level of regular garlic. The taste varies according to the variety, but most are cinder-black and as smooth as a skinned chestnut. The texture is slightly sticky like an unsugared jube or like fig paste, and it has a subtle sweet smoky wood aroma, with plum and prune flavours offset with jabs of sourness and a deep savoury meaty note. Quite a mouthful! Black garlic can be sliced and inserted between the breast and skin of a chicken before roasting; tossed through pasta before serving; scattered over steamed green beans and carrots; added to stir-fries and salads; and, wait for it, softened into a jus or gravy over gentle heat, it’s nothing short of sensational. It keeps for several months, refrigerated, but eventually dries out. Ensure you buy a premium product from a reputable company to gain the attributes mentioned.
3. The lure of smoke
While black garlic has a somewhat mysterious and sophisticated edge, smoked garlic is more like a coarse country cousin; you can smell it a mile away and that presents a problem for storage (in a sealed jar in a beer fridge under the house will just about do it). That said, stalls peddling smoked garlic at farmers’ markets do very well, the smoke being a drawcard. It’s easy to do your own, and one step on from roasted garlic. The easiest way is over coals and wood, utilising the residual heat after barbecuing your dinner. Add a couple of small chunks of suitable wood – say half the size of a beer can – to the embers and set a rack as high above the embers as you can. Put whole heads of garlic on the rack, lower the barbecue lid and go to bed. The next morning you’ll have nutty-tasting smoked garlic ready to serve with your breakfast. Don’t be surprised if half the neighbourhood turn up, tantalised by the aromatic smoke!
4. Sweetly does it
For a sweeter caramelised flavour, start the garlic off while there’s still plenty of heat in the barbecue embers. Put the garlic heads on a small ‘raft’ of tin foil (double foil, sides turned up) and cook for 20-30 minutes, then bundle up the garlic in the foil and cook in the heat of the embers as described. For hot-smoked garlic, lop the top off the heads, rub with olive oil, add a few sprigs of thyme and a little flaky sea salt, wrap in foil and barbecue for about 2 hours with the hood down. The garlic should be soft enough to squeeze out of its papery skin, though be warned: wear disposable gloves unless you want to smell smoked garlic on your fingers for a few days. Home-smoked garlic keeps for at least a week in the fridge. It’s divine whipped into a creamy potato, parsnip or kūmara purée, and is excellent stirred into hummus, bean dips, mayo and dressings.