Friday, 30 March 2012

Garlic - Wet and Wild

Wild garlic tagliatelle

"Eat neither garlic, nor onions, for thy smell will betray the peasant in thee" Don Quixote admonishes his squire, Sancho Panza.  Garlic, or Allium sativum, a member of the lily family, has been cultivated for thousands of years.  Pliny the Elder praised it as a remedy for a host of ailments from asthma to insanity - though he also warned excessive use caused flatulence.  French biologist Louis Pasteur praised garlic's qualities as a disinfectant and recent studies have backed long-held beliefs that compounds in garlic reduce cholesterol levels in the arteries and thus protect the heart.  At one time despised in some countries as a poor man's spice, garlic is now an indispensable ingredient in so many cuisines. 

The arrival of the new season garlic, in its wet (green) and wild (also known as Ramsons, Buckrams, Wood garlic or Bear's garlic) forms, set me thinking about these two members of the allium family.  I grow my own garlic, mostly for drying and using over the autumn and winter months.  Usually my stocks run out around this time of year.  Much as I love the fact I grown my own, I'm happy not to have more stock as storing beyond this time imparts a harshness in flavour.  I look forward to buying the fat-necked green garlic bulbs which start to appear at markets in early spring.  Picked at this stage, the green garlic doesn't keep very well but it is at its sweetest.  You can, after peeling away a layer or two of skin, eat both the white and the pale green stem, discarding only the basal core. Green garlic is mild and sweet with none of the hot, pungent qualities of mature garlic.

Green garlic is perfect for roasting whole with a little thyme, olive oil and a splash of water.  Squeeze the roasted cloves to release the caramelised garlic.  Spread on a fried bread crouton or mix with some anchovies melted in a hot pan and some butter  to make the Italian dipping sauce, Bagna Cauda.  A broth of roasted garlic has long been considered a health restorative.  Whizz the garlic with some good chicken or other stock, salt and lots of pepper, adding a few chopped chives and a little parsley just before serving.

Garlic is very easy to grow and is very well behaved in the kitchen garden.  You need to start off with bulbs from a nursery or seed merchant as these will be certified free of disease.   After that you can grow from your own stock and they will adapt to your conditions over several years.  Garlic needs a month or two of cold weather to stimulate the bulb. In the UK, I find November is a good time to plant varieties like Solent  Wight and Thermidrome. Split up the dried garlic bulb into cloves and plant, root side down, 5-8 centimetres below ground and about 10-15 centimetres apart.  Each planted clove develops into a new bulb.  Harvest when the leaves turn yellow, in June.  If not using straight away, dry them a for week either outside or in an airy shed.  The bulbs will then keep for several months.

Wild Ramson, Allium ursinum, is a wild relative of chives.  Unlike garlic, they are somewhat thuggish and, being perennials and self-seeders, are difficult to eradicate once they take hold.  Better to allow them to rampage under a deciduous tree if you are lucky enough to have a garden where you can devote the space to it.  They like damp and shady conditions and will flower in early spring before the tree canopy shades out the light.

Wild garlic (Ramsons)

If you are into foraging you will find Wild garlic in deciduous woodland.  Take care to crush a piece of leaf between your fingers to release the distinctive pungent  garlic smell to confirm you have the right plant.  My friend Liz at Forage Fine Foods gives good guidance on foraging for wild garlic.  Do also use the flower buds along with the leaves.  The strength of flavour in the leaves diminishes once the flowers mature.

Ramsons have an affinity with eggs, so are wonderful added to egg-based dishes, such as omelette, and frittata - you will need only a few leaves.  They're also good added to soups.  I sometimes make a wild garlic pesto, but be aware that this treatment concentrates the pungent flavour so use sparingly.  I love to use wild garlic in a quick and simple pasta dish.  This is hardly a recipe at all, but I do like to make my own fresh pasta.

Tagliatelle with Wild Garlic
(serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main)

100g (4oz) 'OO' flour
1 large egg
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
A little polenta to help prevent sticking
50g (2oz) unsalted butter
A large handful of wild garlic, well washed and cut roughly

Put all the ingredients except the butter and wild garlic in a mixer, or use your fingers, to mix just until everything holds together. Either change to a doughhook and knead for 2 minutes or knead the dough on a work surface by hand for 10 minutes if you want an excellent work-out for your arm muscles (saves on gym fees). If you use a machine, knead the dough by hand for a final half minute (the warmth of your hands finishes it off perfectly). You will now have a smooth firm dough. Wrap it in cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and salt the water.  Feed the pasta dough through the pasta machine on its lowest setting. Fold the dough and repeat 3 more times. Increasing the setting by one mark each time, feed the dough through the machine once until you reach its highest setting (if you are as short of kitchen space as I am you'll want to cut your rolled pasta in half part way through the rolling to make it more manageable, so you end up with 2 sheets of pasta).   Pass them through the tagliatelle cutter.  Boil the pasta for no more than 3 minutes. 

While the pasta is cooking,  Heat the butter in large pan and add the garlic leaves, salt and pepper.  Cook for one minute then take off the heat.  Add the drained pasta.  Mix in a tablespoon or so of cooking water to loosen slightly.  Serve with lots of grated parmesan.