One of the most misused items inanyAmerican kitchen may be the humble garlic clove. And I’m not talking about just your home kitchen, but professional kitchens as well. Ever bit into a nasty-tasting, raw chunk of garlic? The cook chopped that garlic wrong — literally, leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth: a bitter, too-strong garlic taste. The tough pieces get stuck in your teeth, overpower your palate and ruin your meal.
So how does one use garlic correctly? There are two ways garlic should be utilized: as a seasoning or as an ingredient.
Using garlic as a seasoning requires you to understand the flavor profile of garlic and how it enhances the dish. That’s right, knowing what an ingredient tastes like is important! Raw garlic has a strong, pungent, almost spicy flavor that can easily overpower ingredients if misused. You need to add just enough to taste, but stop using it to ward off vampires.
How do you know how much is enough? First, chop the garlic correctly. Mince those cloves — the pieces from the garlic bulb — so tiny they gets mushy, almost the consistency of paste. I do this (because I’m really good; you can be, too) by first removing the skin. Give the clove a light punch with the side of your chef’s knife to release that skin. Then smash the clove completely with the side of the knife’s blade. Next, begin to chop. Most cooks never take the time to chop garlic small enough. The secret is to add a pinch of salt, then continue to chop.
Next, pull the side of your blade across the garlic. This will further smash the clove and spread it out on the cutting board so you can see exactly where the bigger chunks hide. Continue to chop and pull the knife across the garlic several more times. After a minute or two — voilà! — you have the seasoning you wanted. Finely chopped garlic perfectly seasons a vinaigrette, dressing or pesto. Correctly chopped garlic will simply melt right into the other ingredients. Sublime.
The second way to use garlic? As an ingredient. You’ll see and taste the garlic — meaning that garlic appears as part of the dish. This method is used mostly in Mediterranean cuisine. The object here is to slice the garlic cloves paper-thin and cook them in the dish. Hold the clove with your fingers pointed down. Take the knife and slice the clove as thinly as possible without slicing off your fingertips. There should be visible pieces of the garlic in the finished product. Remember that scene in Goodfellas where one of the characters was slicing garlic with a razor blade to get it thin enough? That’s darn thin — those mobsters know their Italian cooking — which means it will cook thoroughly and taste delicious.
Good luck — try my farmer’s market version of arugula pesto to show off your new garlic chopping skills.
CHEF BILL’S ARUGULA PESTO
- 1 Garlic clove, finely minced
- 1/2 cup Walnuts
- 1 Lemon, zest and juice
- 3 tablespoons Parmesan, grated
- 3 ounces Olive Oil
- 1 ounce Canola Oil
- Half-bag Baby Arugula
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- Toast the walnuts in a pan; roughly chop.
- Place the walnuts in a food processor and pulse until they’re very small and even (not dust).
- Add the arugula, garlic, lemon zest and cheese. Pulse a couple of times to chop up the arugula.
- Slowly pour in the oils and lemon juice until the mixture begins to become smooth. Add salt & pepper. Taste, adjust seasoning and blend until a fairly smooth mixture is achieved. Add more olive oil if necessary.
Until we cook again,
Chef Bill Thompson owns Amelia Island Culinary Academy in Historic Fernandina Beach.