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Softneck or hard, home-grown garlic tastes best

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Softneck or hard, home-grown garlic tastes best The variety-starved produce aisles of our supermarkets, "gourmet" and otherwise, endorse the botanically odd idea that each vegetable (broccoli, carrots, green beans, collards, etc.) comes in one generic variety or, perhaps, two--differentiated by either size or color. Baby carrots, red kale. Fruits are allowed a wider range and proper names. Apples, it is well-known, come in many varieties other than Red Delicious. Pears, almost as many types. Plums come in colors.

But vegetables are pretty generic. Potatoes? Baking, red, and yellow. Onions? You got your yellow, red, Vidalia, and white.

Of course, for all of these, fruit or vegetable, some actual, unnamed but identifiable cultivar is lurking behind the bland label. But of choice, there is little. Home gardeners, habitues of farmers' markets, and those who retain culinary cultural memories know that for real heirloom varieties and old-timey flavor, you have to go to market stands, grow your own, or live in urban areas with immigrant populations.

But you know all that. So let's talk about the popular, healthful, beloved, but most generic vegetable, garlic. Poor anonymous garlic. With garlic, we see just a few unnamed varieties in unceremonious heaps. And elephant garlic, which isn't even garlic, bless its tasteless little heart. Supermarket garlic is typically a variety called silverskin. There are other varieties. But silverskin is preferred because it's the one that tastes best.

Hah, hah. Good joke. You weren't fooled for a second.

So, why silverskin? Well, it stores well. And, except in those ethnic culinary enclaves (Italian, Mexican, Slavic) where people know better, there isn't much cultural taste memory about garlics in these United States.

And, despite garlic's growing popularity, things are getting worse. The garlic story is the American horticulture story writ small and pungent. We are no longer self-sufficient in vegetables. Farm acreage is declining, as are exports. Imports flood in. China dominates the apple juice market and garlic production; the California garlic industry is shrinking as cheap imports drive prices below the cost of production. Over the last couple of years, American garlic production has dropped over 25 percent a year, while garlic consumption has skyrocketed. The largest U.S. producer of garlic, Christopher Ranch, recently gave up resisting and started buying part of its production from China.

So, what to do if you want a better garlic experience? A revelation? There's hope, particularly if you grow your own.

But first, let's back up and get straight on garlic varieties. Fortunately, garlic taxonomy is actually simpler than apple taxonomy. (Garlic grows true from "seed," apples don't.) Garlic is Allium sativum. Other alliums are onions, lilies, leeks, etc. There are two main types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Softneck garlics are garlics that tend not to bolt and produce flowers. Without a flowerstalk, they are "softneck." They are ones that you can braid. Within those two subspecies are varieties like silverskin, rocambole, artichoke, turban, purple stripe, porcelain and purple stripe. And within those are named cultivars like Nootka Rose, Inchelium Red, Lorz Italian, Chesnok Red, and so on.

Softnecks are typical in warm winter regions, where the climate would encourage bolting, which steals energy from the bulb. In colder regions hardnecks are more typical, the climate slowing the bolting.

Why would you care, unless you want to braid garlic? Softnecks are easier to grow, store better and end up in supermarkets, often nine months after harvest. But hardnecks typically taste better. When you're shopping, you can tell a hardneck by the hard stem coming up through the middle of the clove cluster. Find them. Buy them.

Right now is probably the worst time for buying garlic, unless it is coming up from the other hemisphere. The fall-planted crop isn't quite ready and last year's storage crop is fading. But June should mark the appearance of fresh garlic at the farmers' markets. Most market farmers don't hang their garlic to cure; so you can either eat it as fresh garlic or hang it for a month or so to cure.

But now is the best time to order "seed" garlic. Because the best thing to do, if you have a little bit of space, is to grow it. It is actually easy to grow; even I can do it, which means it is easy. And, you plant it in October/November, when your garden isn't crowded with summer crops and you're not suffering summer torpor. There are plenty of good sources of seed garlic; I like Filaree Farm (www.filareefarm.com) and the catalog is a great read with helpful advice. Here's the basic, very sketchy, scheme:

Order (now) a couple of different varieties (see sidebar recommendations), plant the cloves in late October, enrich soil, add gypsum, cover with a lot of mulch and wait. They'll sprout, send up shoots and then go dormant in the winter. Come spring, they'll recommence. With the hardnecks you'll want to remove the flower stalks (leave a few, 'cause they're cute). Harvest in May/June. You now have fresh garlic, which is tasty and fun, but you really want to hang the garlic and let it dry for a month. Hang in a cool, not-too-humid place until it "papers." You'll be glad you did, and you'll never see another vampire. EndBlock

Garlic varieties I've been lucky with
Although I've disparaged them, there are some decent softnecks. By far my favorite softneck is an artichoke type named Inchelium Red. Lorz Italian is also good. My most successful hardneck was a purple strip variety named Chesnok Red. Of the Rocamboles, I've liked Killarney Red and German Brown. And I loved Georgian Crystal, which is a Porcelain type.

Best Neglected Kitchen Equipment
There are glitzy, expensive and technologically sophisticated tools for the kitchen--knives and pans that are metallurgical masterpieces; processors with processors and toasters with sensors. One of my favorites, used everyday, is a low-tech, low-profile, low-price device from yesteryear: the double-boiler.

People don't use it much any more. Its major tasks have been taken over by the microwave. That's not surprising, since both work by heating water.

Microwave proselytizers claim convenience, but they are deluded. Let's look at the melting of butter and of chocolate. Both are both better and more easily done in a double boiler. Microwaves make it easy to destroy flavor by cooking the milk solids, vaporizing the volatiles and scorching the scorchables; you have to use low power, stir a lot and keep checking. Gee, that sounds convenient.

And mashed potatoes. I know of no better place to keep mashers (or whatever starchy puree sinks your boat) hot and ready to serve than in the top of a double-boiler. And oatmeal in the morning? Pour in your steel-cut oats, take a shower, collect the newspaper, let the dog out and then (no watching, no stirring) the oatmeal's done.

Double-boilers, through the happy physics of water's boiling point, are much friendlier to such delicate tasks than the microwave. As are the double boiler's cousins, the vegetable steamer and the fish poacher. As is the water bath, bain marie, the double boiler's cousin once-removed (to the oven).

And they're all much better looking than a microwave.

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