If you’ve ever tried to peel 15 tiny slivers of garlic just to get enough for a proper meal, and had the wispy wrappers stuck to your stinky garlic-juice fingers, then you know the frustration of softneck garlic.
But do you know the pleasure of a clove that peels so easily that the whole thing comes off in one piece? A single clove that peels in five seconds and has to be cut in half to fit in most garlic presses?
That, friends, is hardneck garlic.
Hardneck cloves radiate around a central stalk like slices of pie, while softneck bulbs are lumpier, with a central stalk that is shriveled like a belly button. All you have to do is press your thumb into the middle of a bulb and you will know what you are dealing with, if it wasn’t already obvious.
One typically has to pay more for hardneck, but it’s worth every penny. The first time I saw Romanian Red, in a basket in the back of a pickup truck in the Pacific Northwest, I bought 30 pounds for $150. That was 15 years ago and one of the best investments I’ve ever made. To this day, Romanian Red is the kind of garlic you want to work with in the kitchen, ergo the kind you want to plant.
The man who sold me that life-changing garlic stash, David Ronniger, passed away last summer. Until our paths first crossed at the Tonasket Barter Faire, I had been growing a not-bad Spanish Rosa. But since meeting the Romanian Red I have not looked back. All of my garlic-growing friends have switched as well, growing out seed that I’d gifted them.
Once, to win a softneck versus hardneck debate with my farmer friend Patty Fialkowitz, I gave her a bag of Romanian Red. Years went by. I moved away. I moved back to find Patty’s husband Bob is now growing 600 pounds of Romanian Red, all from the seed I gave her to make my point. Bob was even selling Romanian Red to Ronniger, who ended up selling more Romanian Red than he could grow. Now that David is gone, Bob has extra, if anybody wants any. (Fialkyfarm@gmail.com)
Online, the going rate for Romanian Red seed is about $25 a pound, but I’m pretty sure the stuff available at your local farmers market, including Bob’s, runs quite a bit less, and you can plant it just the same. There is nothing special about so-called “seed garlic.” Or Romanian Red, for that matter. There are many good varieties out there, and the most important thing, other than it be a hardneck, is that it grows well in your area. If you pick up some locally grown garlic at your farmers market and treat it right, you can assume it will resemble what you bought.
Break the bulbs into cloves and plant them, scab side down, with the tip an inch below the surface of the earth, about 6 to 10 inches apart. Mulch it through the winter if you live in a cold climate, and don’t ever let it dry out until harvest time.
— Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Ari lives in Montana and New Mexico and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @arilevaux
Garlic Seafood Sauce
Here’s a recipe for a garlicky Thai sauce called nam jim, which basically means “dipping sauce for seafood.” In addition to being great for that, it also gives a saltwater flair to non-seafood dishes thanks to a copious amount of fish sauce.
There are as many recipes for nam jim as there are Thai kitchens. My recipe comes from Pornthip Rodgers, who runs Pagoda Chinese and Thai food in Missoula, Montana.
• 16 miniscule garlic cloves, painstakingly peeled (she used softneck garlic, in other words); or, preferably, a clove or two of a decent stock
• Small bunch of cilantro
• 1-2 Thai-style chiles, to taste
• 2 limes, quartered and ready to squeeze, for about 1/2 cup juice
• 1/4 cup fish sauce
• 1/3 cup sugar (or to taste)
• 2 Tablespoons chicken soup powder (optional; she uses this as a replacement for MSG)
• Salt, to taste
Start by blending the cilantro, garlic and chiles along with sugar, soup powder and lime juice into a coarse slurry. Adjust ingredients to ensure there is too much of everything, then add too much fish sauce.