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When in doubt, add a ton of garlic

I lie in my little bed at night, and ask myself: Is there such a thing as too much garlic?

Oh, I suppose a ton or so dumped on the front porch would be considered “too much.” But, I’m referring to the use of the stinking rose in food.

I realize, of course, that certain qualifications must be made, most notably one based on a distinction between uncooked garlic and cooked garlic.

It is easy to imagine too much uncooked garlic, the raw deal distributed indiscriminately throughout a dish. Oh, yeah, even the most avid lover of garlic could surrender at some point in the process if the prima materia were raw.

But, cooked?

Just before I wend my way to dreamland, after I’ve reviewed my garlic basics, I have the answer to my question: Is there such a thing as too much garlic?

No.

The next day, I set out to establish a measure of proof for my position.

One wall of my foundation rests on the reality of roasted garlic. The stuff changes nature, exchanges its harsh, often bitter characteristics for a more pleasant character. I can eat properly roasted cloves of garlic like snack nuts. I’m sure you can, too.

Second, I know it is darned hard to over-garlic a tomato sauce, given the sauce is cooked long enough.

Bagna Cauda? Too much garlic? Surely, you jest. This delightful melange — olive oil, garlic, anchovy, milk-soaked bread — is the perfect dip for fresh, raw veggies, for hunks of crusty bread. Or your hand, if you’re desperate for a garlic fix.

My argument relies on the fact the noble clove mellows considerably when cooked. The longer it is cooked, and the bigger the chunk of garlic, the milder it is when eaten. Still a bit prominent on the breath, mind you, but easier to consume.

You see, with garlic, the smaller the pieces, and in particular if those pieces are mashed, the more volatile chemicals are released from the flesh. Those volatile chemicals are, of course, the elements that make the vegetable stinky. Raw, mashed or shredded garlic is a culinary weapon that should be wielded by masters only.

But, a big piece of garlic, or a whole clove, cooked long and slow — braised or roasted — is a different animal entirely. Sweet, its rough edges gone, its effect mitigated, it is a lovely ingredient, hard to abuse with even the clumsiest paws.

I decided to do a test run to further cement my theory.

How about a take on the notorious Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic?

I remember the first time I enjoyed the bird fixed thus. I was a lad, just back to Denver from my adventures in musicland in New York City and all points in between, and I was (as the jargon went at the time) “crashing” with a pair of dubious hippie lovebirds in a hovel located in Capitol Hill. Pierre and Caspienne — poetry- and hormone-intoxicated bongo-playing quasi students — had taken up cooking and drinking wine as a hobby.

Seemed fine to me. I was able to eat all manner of whole grain concoctions, and “rest” during my tenure in their “pad.”

I tended to “rest” a lot, having expended an enormous amount of energy finding my way back to the Rockies from the Big Apple (remind me to tell you about Oxford, Ohio, sometime) and, one evening, I was awakened by the most extraordinary smell.

Garlic.

I staggered down a flight of rickety stairs, stumbled over a couple of old cats and lurched into the “dining room,” which also served as the “living room” and a “bedroom.”

In other words, the room contained a mattress-cum-dining table draped with a threadbare paisley bedspread, the space lit by a single fixture — a lamp made from the shin bone of a wapiti on top of which glowed a yellowed 60-watt bulb. There was a torn Family Dog poster taped to the wall.

Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic.

Caspienne was inspired by a recipe read during her break as a salesperson at the college bookstore. She scrounged the change needed to purchase a scraggly chicken at the market and there was cash enough left in hand to buy four heads of garlic. She borrowed salt and pepper from the peyote-addled folks in the commune next door.

She crammed the peeled cloves of garlic inside the bird, seasoned it, tossed it in the oven, successfully lit the oven without blowing up the apartment and …

It was just peachy, the chicken consumed in the company of several glasses of four-day-old Almaden, all done to the accompaniment of tunes from the first Big Brother and the Holding Company album played on a battered Silvertone with only one working speaker.

Good times.

I think I can do the inimitable Caspienne one better. Jack the recipe up a bit, if you will.

I got me a chicken and cut it into a bunch o’ parts. I procured an “organic” chicken to appease Kathy, since she refuses to buy my argument that there are no inorganic chickens. I have had an e-mail exchange recently concerning the merits of Kosher poultry and my e-mail partner, no doubt, and accurately, would recommend an organic, Kosher chicken. Couldn’t agree more — nothing beats proper, personalized exsanguination of flesh destined for human consumption. However the rascals are hard to come by at the local supermarket. If we can talk our market into carrying them, make a point of buying a few; you won’t be disappointed.

I digress.

I snagged the chicken and cut it up. Eight pieces. I seasoned the pieces with salt and pepper.

I sauteed the chicken (with skin, please) in a large braiser, four pieces at a time, over medium high heat, in olive oil, three minutes or so on each side. The chicken was removed to a tented plate when browned.

Into the braiser (could just as easily have been a Dutch oven — fancy and enameled, or plain) went forty to fifty cloves of peeled garlic. After the garlic spent a couple minutes over the heat, back in went the chicken with some chopped fresh rosemary and chopped fresh thyme. The braiser was covered with foil and went into a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, the hunks of bird getting the occasional baste with pan juices.

The foil was removed. I threw in a mess of thinly sliced cremini mushrooms, a bit of lemon zest. I popped the pan back in the oven, uncovered, for another half hour or so until the chicken was done and golden, toasty good.

Out came the chicken. The pan was put on the stovetop burner over medium high heat and I slipped in a couple shallots, minced, a bit more oil and cooked the shallots for two or three minutes. Then, I deglazed the pan with a smidge of dry, white wine. The garlic was mashed into the wine and another quarter cup of the wine was added and cooked for about five minutes. In went about three-quarters of a cup of chicken stock and a teaspoon of chicken base and the sauce was reduced by about half. The seasonings were adjusted, a splash of heavy cream went in and about a half stick of unsalted butter was swirled in, a glob at a time. Back to the pan went the chicken for a bath.

Served with a yam puree elevated with chopped, roasted green chile and this stuff was garlicky good.

Coulda used forty or so more cloves of garlic, if you ask me. There’s no such thing as too much.

More proof, you say?

The same basic approach would work with a braised beef — a pot roast or a daube — with the garlic cloves and aromatic vegetables put through a sieve into a sauce composed of reduced red wine, beef stock and veal demiglace. Yow!

How about roasting potatoes with garlic. Sure, there’s the cliché garlic mashed potatoes and, despite the fact they are ubiquitous in the restaurant trade, they are pretty darned good. But, roasted potatoes, with all the benefit of roasted garlic?

Try this. Get some new potatoes, fingerlings or red potatoes and cut them into uniform hunks or spears. A head, preferably two, of garlic is needed, the cloves separated but not peeled. The potatoes are seasoned then spud chunks and garlic cloves are coated in olive oil and some rosemary is added. The veggies are put in an oiled roasting pan and nailed in a 350 oven for about 45 minutes, or until the spuds are at a state of golden-brown glory. Oh, my: Put a bit of that herb and garlic infused oil on the potatoes, pop out eight or ten cloves of the buttery roasted garlic and mix well. Put a few cloves of garlic on bread, with some butter. Yikes!

Or, how about beef tenderloin medallions lightly grilled then finished in a 400 oven for a few minutes, the surfaces slicked with a garlic glaze ala the recipe in “The Professional Chef” text from the Culinary Institute of America?

Easy stuff. First, make a Sauce Marchand de Vin: minced shallots, a couple sprigs of thyme, some cracked black peppercorns, a healthy hit of red wine, a bay leaf — all combined and the mix reduced to a syrupy state. A wad o’ demiglace is added and the sauce is reduced again to where it coats the back of a spoon. The sauce is strained and butter is whisked in a hunk at a time to finish.

To make the glaze, as per the recipe, the Sauce Marchand is mixed with a healthy amount of pureed roasted garlic and some glace de viand. ( A note here: glace de viand is a stock — veal, beef — reduced to a jellied state. Who’s got the time or patience, huh? Use some commercial demiglace. Who’ll know, but you?)

The glaze is applied to the grilled medallions before they are popped back in the oven for finishing. One can give the medallions a sec under the broiler to brown the glaze.

Got a favorite recipe that calls for a lot of garlic?

Double the amount.

Invite friends over for dinner.

Don’t forget: everyone has to partake (the old after-dinner mint or sprig of parsley isn’t going to do the trick).

If you can, for sentiment’s sake, serve up a couple glasses of four-day-old Almaden.

Anyone got a paisley bedspread?

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