Alimentary, My Dear
Glorious, Gutsy Garlic!
By Tamia Nelson
May 19, 2009
Let's face facts. The packaged meals that a lot of paddlers rely on aren't necessarily something you'll look forward to at the end of a long day on the water. Some are too salty. Others are too greasy. And many are simply boring. Well, I've got news for you: Eating in the backcountry doesn't have to be a dreary exercise in calorie replenishment. You just need to put a secret ingredient in your duffle. You'll probably have your own favorite, but my not-so-secret "secret ingredient" is garlic. Few foods pack such a big punch in such a small package.
In short, garlic's an acknowledged winner in the pantry space race. It's an acquired taste, I admit, but it seems to be catching on, even among the hardcore "Food is fuel, period" brigade. Me? I love garlic. Always have. So much so that I suffer on any backcountry trip when I don't have some garlic cloves to work with. I've used garlic to enhance boxed rice mixes, liven up pasta dishes, and give canned soups and stews a little more character and authority. Garlic also plays a starring role in my skillet pizza and quesadillas. I even eat it raw on bruschetta and camp-baked flatbread.
Not your idea of a treat? Fair enough. Like I said, garlic is an acquired taste. But don't walk away without giving it one more try. Maybe your opinions were formed by early run-ins with commercial garlic powder and garlic salt. These are snares and delusions, fit only for home chemistry experiments. They're no substitute for…
The Real Thing
To begin with, garlic has the highest signal-to-noise ratio of any member of the Allium genus. Garlic haters might turn this around to read "noise-to-signal ratio," I suppose, though most of them still love one or more of garlic's close relations. Onions, say, or leeks. Or chives, diced fine and sprinkled over a baked potato. But garlic has something extra, something the others just can't equal. It's the best traveler of the bunch, for one thing—and that means a lot to backcountry cooks. Foods that don't travel well won't make it past the first long portage or big lake. You can't afford bad garlic in the backcountry, however. Bad garlic is never a good traveler. So give a wide berth to the shrunken heads in the convenient little cardboard boxes. The same goes for any garlic that's already sprouting green shoots. Pass it by. Head for the plump, fresh heads, instead. Heft each one. You don't want the biggest. You want the best, and they're the ones that are the heaviest for their size, whether they're large or small. Size doesn't matter, in other words. Density is what you're looking for. You want nice, tight heads, too. All the cloves (and there can be more than 30 in a big head) should be nestled together like hungry piglets around a sow. The key words? Round. Firm. Fully packed. Those are the hallmarks of a good head of garlic. Color doesn't matter, either. Most HyperMart garlic has a white, papery skin, but you'll often find purple or red garlic at farmer's markets and food co-ops. They're all worth looking at, and if they pass muster they're all worth taking home.
A caveat: While size isn't a measure of quality, larger cloves are undoubtedly easier to peel. So if you're a little fumble-fingered at the end of a hard day—and who isn't?—you may want to opt for larger heads. What about elephant garlic, then? This is bigger (it's elephant garlic, right?) and reputedly milder. Some folks like it. But I find it rather acrid and lacking in true garlic flavor. It's your call.
OK. You've got your garlic. How long will it last? Plenty long. Long enough for the longest trips. Months, in fact. If you treat it well, that is. Pull off only as many cloves as you need—use your fingernail to get a purchase on the pointy end (see photo above)—and leave the rest of the head intact. Keep your reserve heads whole, too. And stow them away where it's both dark and dry. A rigid plastic box deep inside a dry bag would be ideal. That's all there is to it.
Let's get back to those cloves you just pulled off the head. You want garlic in whatever you're cooking, but you don't want the papery husk. So it's time to peel your cloves. This is something of a black art, and it often defeats the first attempts of novice cooks. But it's not really that hard. If you have strong fingers, simply grasp a clove between thumb and forefinger and squeeze until you feel the papery peel snap and separate from the flesh. That was easy, wasn't it? No? Then put the recalcitrant clove on a firm surface—the bottom of an upturned boat, perhaps, or a nearby outcrop of the Canadian Shield—and press down on it with the palm of your hand. How hard? Just hard enough to loosen the peel. Yet not hard enough to crush the clove. It's a fine line. Maybe it's too fine. Are you crushing more cloves than you're peeling? All right. Try this, instead: Cradle the clove between your thumb and the knuckle of your forefinger. Now press down on that handy firm surface we talked about a minute ago. The peel ought to break free. Still no luck? Then it's time for a hands-off approach. Place the clove (it's probably looking a little careworn by now!) on that firm surface and push down on it with the bottom of a metal cup. This should do the trick.
Confused? No problem. Picture this…
Now relax. You've done the hard part. Once you've loosened the papery peel's hold on the underlying clove, you can just pull it away. Use a knife if you want, but you'll probably find that your fingers are the only tools you'll need. Then trim off any damaged bits of the clove and—if a green sprout has appeared since you carried the parent head home from the HyperMart—slice the clove in half lengthwise, in order to scrape out the embryo shoot. Why? Green shoots may cheer investors, but they'll make your garlic bitter.
Our story so far: You've bought your garlic and peeled it. And you've probably gotten some pungent juice on your fingers in the process. It's high time we acknowledged the elephant in the room…
The Smell! The Smell!
Garlic isn't shy. It's not afraid to speak out. And it hangs around, too. If garlic juice isn't your first choice as a signature scent, you should rinse your hands (and knife) in cold water. Does the smell still linger? Then it's time for a little more black magic. Rub your freshly rinsed hands on the bottom of a stainless steel pot or cup. Some folks report that this does the trick, neutralizing the odor completely. On the basis of a few informal trials, I'm skeptical. Or maybe it's a personal thing. In any case, smelly hands are a small price to pay for garlic's many gifts.
You may not feel the same way about garlic breath, though. Here you're doing battle with chemistry, and the odds are against you. The sulfur-containing compounds that give garlic its unique flavor also make your breath stink. Wait! There's worse to come. Since these compounds are taken up by the blood, only to diffuse into your lungs with each beat of your heart, for hours on end, neither parsley nor breath mints will do much to mask the reek. Which makes garlic a natural for open-air meals—even if it also makes the allocation of tent-partners somewhat problematic, particularly in large parties made up mostly of casual acquaintances. "Smoking or Non-Smoking?" now has to be paired with "Garlic or Non-Garlic?" It's a complicated world, and our lives are shaped by such difficult choices. Some optimistic souls maintain that the same sulfur compounds that repel tent-mates also repel mosquitoes. Sadly, there's little evidence to support this hopeful notion. My advice? Don't leave the DEET at home!
Assuming that you've come to terms with the Big Stink, and that you're still interested in bringing garlic along on your next paddling trip, it's time to take another look at…
Packing and Preserving
And planning, too, of course. How much is enough? That depends. A head will do me for a week, while a few whole, unpeeled cloves are plenty for a weekend—unless I'm hoping to roast heads of garlic over coals, that is. Packing is a snap. As I've already mentioned, garlic keeps best if the heads are stored whole (not important on weekend jaunts, perhaps, but vital on longer trips), in the dark, and out of the wet. And although the heads are remarkably robust, it pays to protect them from being crushed by tin cans or other hard objects. A rigid plastic box is ideal. Stored this way, garlic will keep fresh for just about as long as any paddler is likely to be out and about on the water. Should sprouts start to form, however, simply pinch them off, and use the sprouted cloves ASAP.
Then again, maybe you're going to be out all summer. Or maybe you're just the worrying kind. If so, you might want to dry some garlic. Do it at home. The store-bought kind can't compete. Are you tempted by the pre-chopped garlic that's packed in oil? Don't be. It has no place on any trip that takes you out of sight of a refrigerator. Better yet, avoid it altogether. Botulism is no fun. In any case, drying garlic at home is easy. You don't even need a dehydrator. Your oven is fine. Begin by peeling and halving cloves to remove any embryonic sprouts. If no sprouts are visible, just slice the cloves crosswise. Then spread the slices on a baking sheet and dry. The process takes about six hours at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps a bit longer if the humidity is high. Now pack your home-dried garlic in an airtight container or freezer bag, and you're ready for the long haul. (If you're a garlic powder fan—I'm not—you can make your own in a blender, using the garlic you've just dried.) When you're ready to cook, simply add dried garlic to the pot as you would fresh, clove for clove. It will rehydrate as it cooks. Which brings me to the next chapter in our story…
Now You're Cooking!
This is where the real magic happens. Cooking transforms garlic from a petulant prima donna into a versatile team player. If you're in the mood for a mellow meal, cook your garlic long and slow. Favor a sharper flavor? Then short and hot is what you want. Running low on stores? Stretch your garlic—cut it fine. A single clove goes further if it's minced. (But don't let it burn!) Plenty of garlic, but a shortage of interesting meals on the menu? Just chop it into coarse chunks. You'll add both flavor and texture to any compatible dish. Or crush whole cloves to release their oils, then fish them out after your meal has cooked. Whole, uncrushed cloves impart the subtlest flavor of all. The photo below shows the entire spectrum, beginning on the left with a whole clove and ending on the right with a mound of minced garlic. If you look carefully, you'll see the start of a shoot in a sliced clove. I didn't bother to remove it. Since the slices were destined for a pot of spaghetti sauce, where they'd simmer for a long, long time, I was confident that any bitterness would be cooked out. It was.
An embarrassment of choice, right? Right. And that just touches on the many possibilities. Whole, peeled cloves sweeten any long-simmering stew, tomato sauce, or soup. If roasted gently in olive oil over glowing coals, unpeeled cloves become soft, with an understated, nutty flavor. They can even be eaten out of hand. Easy does it, however! If allowed to burn, the same cloves will be unpleasantly bitter. Do you need to improve a packaged couscous, or a rice or pasta mix, a dried or canned soup, or a canned stew? Sauté some garlic in oil and mix it in, or skip the sautéing stage altogether and simply add the garlic to the pot.
Does all this talk of food make you hungry? It does me. So let's look at…
Garlic in Action
Almost everyone loves garlic bread, but how many paddlers carry a reflector oven? Then again, who needs an oven? Use a skillet instead. You'll still need bread and garlic, of course. I prefer a hearty artisan loaf, but any thick-sliced bread will do. The first step in making skillet garlic bread is to make garlic oil. Pour enough extra-virgin olive oil into a skillet to cover the bottom without making a deep puddle. Now add coarsely chopped garlic. How much? Well, how garlicky do you want your garlic bread to be? One whole-clove equivalent will be plenty for two people, though garlic lovers may want to double this.
Make sure your sliced bread is ready before you go any further. Things move fast from here on. Heat the oil and garlic together over a medium-high or high flame on your stove, or over the hottest part of your fire. Watch the garlic carefully, and don't let it burn. When it begins to brown around the edges, lift the skillet off the flame and scrape the garlic into a bowl or cup with a fork or spoon. Now place the slices of bread in the oiled skillet, leave for a few seconds, and then turn them over. Next, throttle down your stove and return the skillet to the flame. (If you're cooking on an open fire, pick a spot where the heat's not so hot.) Cover the skillet and toast until the bread is golden-brown on one side, then turn it and toast the other side. You're done! Serve the garlic bread as is, or garnish with the cooked garlic you scraped out of the skillet earlier.
The same technique can be elaborated to produce a quick and easy pasta sauce. Use about a quarter cup of olive oil for two servings of pasta (that's about half a pound of dry pasta for two hungry paddlers)—the choice of pasta is up to you, but the thinner it is, the faster it will cook. A hint: A little home-dried sage will add flavor.
Make garlic oil just as you do for garlic bread. You'll need more olive oil and more garlic, though, and you can use either a pot or a skillet. Add the dried sage to the oil at the start, if you want, and leave the chopped garlic in the skillet after browning. Once the garlic oil is ready, put it to one side, being sure to keep it warm. Now prepare your pasta as usual, finishing off by draining away all but a cup of the cooking water. (You'll need to retain more water if you're cooking for more than two people, but too much water yields a watery sauce.) Next, stir the garlic oil—and any cooked garlic you spooned out—into the pasta while heating over a low flame. When the sauce thickens slightly, the pasta's almost ready. Now season with salt and ground black pepper and serve immediately, garnishing with grated cheese and crushed Triscuits®. And for a truly gutsy feast, be sure to have some garlic bread on the side.
Once you get accustomed to the Big Stink, there's no better addition to a paddler's pantry than a head of fresh garlic. It packs well, and it's an excellent traveler. It's also versatile, with a personality that ranges from sweet and mild to intense and in-your-face. It complements most cuisines, and it can be used to good advantage by just about any cook. What more could you ask for? So the next time you're drawing up a backcountry menu, don't forget to leave a space on your shopping list for glorious, gutsy garlic!
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