Monday, July 16, 2012

loving garlic

It is possible you, too, have been feeling excited about garlic lately; though I suspect if your passion is lacking it may be because you haven't had reason to give much attention to this root vegetable. Personally, I hadn't thought much about garlic until a former housemate grew it in our yard several years back. I remember watching in wonder as the scapes curled and climbed towards the sun, thinking "what is that plant? garlic. really?", then lusting after the pile of harvested garlic with shoots still attached, sunbathing on the picnic table. Growing garlic seemed exotic and complex. I just never thought of it as a veggie you'd typically plant in your yard. 

Memories of that garlic on Fountain Street emboldened me when I started with a few heads of Armenian Porcelain purchased at the Mill City Farmer's Market last fall, pictured above and in this post. It was October and seemed a good time to throw some cloves in the ground and cover the patch with leaves we had heaped in a pile from the latest raking. I shouldn't have been surprised when one spring day I walked around the side of our house and was stunned by six inch shoots sticking out of the ground. But seriously, they just crept up on me - a pile of leaf mulch one day, garlic shoots the next.

I am always amazed to watch plants do what they naturally do. I often feel a bit of doubt when I first plant a garden and leave the recommended space in between seeds or seedlings. The garden seems so sparse in early spring; the lush fullness of late summer an impossibility. And yet, every year it happens. "Plants want to grow" a wise woman at the local farmer's market replied one day when I presented her with my concerns about ailing chard starters. We trust that biological urge of survival - the same trust we rely upon when our babies are fighting their first cold, or when we feel uncertain in the face of a particularly difficult parenting challenge. Plants want to grow, just as children want to grow. And with such grace. 

And that grace becomes ever more apparent as the lovely garlic shoots her scape up into the air in a showy display of curls and swoops. It is recommended that you cut these scapes off your garlic plants when they begin their backbends in order to direct the energy of the plant to the bulb. And here we are given the first taste of our harvest - a prelude of what's to come.

Surely, there are many ways to eat a scape. But year after year, this double garlic soup is my favorite. And it was made better this year with scapes from our own crop. The texture is delicate creaminess, the flavor subtle yet strong and the color (for those of us green lovers) perfect. You'll be rewarded if you go heavy on the scapes. I tend to use garlic cloves instead of green garlic when I make this soup only because it is easier for me to find the former. This is truly a once a year pleasure. You may be able to find berries and peaches in the frosty months at your grocery store, but you'll be hard pressed to find garlic scapes out of season. Enjoy them while you can.

I did much reading in trying to figure out how to care for my precious plants - how much to water, when to stop, how to identify optimal harvest time. Luckily, University of Minnesota Extension put out a really nice, thorough document on growing garlic in Minnesota. For the most part the bulbs really didn't need much help. There was a bit of trial and error in figuring out when to pull the bulbs. I read somewhere that if you leave the scapes on a couple of your plants they'll indicate the bulb's readiness by standing up straight once they are done curling. I did try this method with one of my plants and was amazed that the plant must have reached five or six feet as it shot straight into the air. But when I pulled it I was a little disappointed in the bulb's small size. I gathered my patience, stopped watering and waited one more week.

I'm certain you don't need me to enumerate the benefits of children taking part in the process of growing their own food - countless people have addressed this hot topic, including perhaps most famously Alice Waters and, more recently, our first lady Michelle Obama. In addition to the many socioeconomic, ecological, and health reasons, there is the simple excitement and wonder when a little one plants a single clove, cares for a shoot and eventually pulls and pulls and whoops, out comes a bulb of garlic from the soil. It really confirms my desire and commitment to grow as much of our food as we can. Because more valuable than any money or carbon emissions we save and pesticides we avoid, is that gratitude and appreciation our little ones gain for their food and all that goes into growing it; the understanding of where their food comes from - how it seemingly miraculously appears on the table each day; the skill and wisdom of increased self sufficiency; and the openness to trying, and enjoying, new foods.

And for me there's still just a tiny bit of disbelief (garlic. really?) mixed with a little swell of pride when I glance over at our beautiful bunch of garlic knowing that I helped usher those bulbs to life.
Though, clearly, it's they who did the real work, just "wanting to grow".

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