By SHANNON WATKINS
Garlic has been around since ancient times, and anyone who doesn’t like it will certainly agree it smells like it has. Somewhere along the way it was dubbed “the stinking rose”; Egyptian priests forbade its consumption as it was thought to raise excessive passion, Greek warriors ate it for courage, and Chinese doctors prescribed it to men who had “intimacy problems” (one assumes they had the same problems after but were now able to blame them on the garlic).
But even people who find it harsh and overpowering usually like it roasted, which gives it a mellow, sweet flavor and an unctuously soft texture. I still recall with nostalgia a Norfolk restaurant called Castaldi’s, where I used to eat with my mother and grandmother. The waiter would bring not only bread to your table before the meal but a salad plate with a generous puddle of good olive oil strewn with real grated Parmesan. He’d twist a pepper grinder over it to your satisfaction and then take a freshly roasted whole head of garlic with its top cut off and squeeze it from an impressive height into the oil.
The thing to do next was pick up a slice of bread and dredge one end of it through the oil, then use your knife to scoop up some of the garlic and spread it across the bread like butter. One bite and you’d be tempted to wave off the rest of the menu and make a meal out of what was already on your table. Of course you’d still get garlic breath from it—roasting only tames it so much—but unless you got within inches of each others’ faces, you didn’t care.
Whatever your plans for it, first you need the basic item. I’ve seen more than one recipe for how to roast garlic, from first putting it in a little dish of water to covering it in a clay jar. My method is fairly simple and works well for me; you may tinker and decide you prefer to try it at a different temperature for a shorter or longer period of time.
A word: raw garlic often has a green bit in the very middle that’s usually bitter, but once roasted it’s rendered harmless; and roasting garlic is usually something to pursue if you’re already roasting another, bigger dish and can toss it in alongside, although you can certainly put it in the oven it all by its lonesome.
Preheat oven to 350F. Wrap up however many whole heads of garlic you like in separate squares of aluminum foil. Once oven is ready, place on middle rack and roast for 40 minutes to an hour depending on heat of oven and size of garlic. (Long before it’s done, your house will smell enchantingly of it, and long after it as well, so pay attention or it’ll burn, and then your house will smell like scorched tires.)
Once the bulb feels squishy all the way through when you squeeze it, it’s done. Let it cool for a bit and then cut off the top and squeeze out what little bits of garlic are in it. Then squeeze out the bottom half, which in my case always involves some digging and poking. Roast garlic is unbelievably sticky and you’ll be scrubbing your hands after you’re finished. (How did that waiter do it and not make a mess?)
I really can’t over-recommend mixing a head of it into your mashed potatoes, which with a little sour cream and butter and maybe milk will make them unbearably good. (And salt, and, if you feel like it, white pepper.) I haven’t yet squished any into my meatloaf while mixing it up, but I can’t imagine it would fail to improve the flavor. Tossing it into the blender with a ladleful of whatever savory hot soup you’re cooking, and then stirring the results back into the pot, would make a very fine experiment. Or adding it to homemade salad dressing. Or just mashing some well and stirring it into your spaghetti sauce, whether jarred or homemade. You will think of a dozen uses for it once you have it to hand.
Of course, you can just take it straight from the oven, squeeze it out, and plop it into a puddle of good olive oil with pepper and Parmesan and maybe a sprinkle of kosher salt and smear it across the best bread you can find. You will feel as if nothing can harm you, enveloped as you are in a scent more voluptuous and enticing than any perfume.
Feed a slice of it to your beloved and let it make you both feel irresistibly happy until you’re compelled to laugh and cuddle and whisper sweet nothings in each others’ ears, to kiss each other on the cheek, the jaw, the neck–everywhere, alas, except the mouth.