Smuggled Garlic Is the Best Garlic
After a winter that had to have been the longest decade on record, I put my hands in the soil and am restored.
This is kinda sorta but not really a recipe letter. I’m going to talk about food that we eat, but I had an epiphany — it was delicious, thank you for asking — and I also want to talk about feeding our souls.
Yes, you are in the right substack. No, I haven’t been kidnapped by mindfulness experts.
It’s just that we’re all going through so much right now. Some of us have it better than others. Way better. But most of us are struggling in some way.
And, illogically, we don’t take care of ourselves when we need it the most. We shower, we eat (mostly robotically, with little sense or appreciation for where our meals come from), we remember to hydrate and we go about our lives, but we often carry on stoically and forget to do the things that re-awaken that childlike spirit in us. Note that I could have said “spark joy,” but Marie Kondo locked that down before I could grab the copyright on it. And I think that summoning that childlike spirit — where everything is new and digging in the dirt feels like the answer to everything — is the very definition of joy.
The shape of one’s childlike spirit is different for all of us, but for me, tending to my vegetable and herb garden is where I become that happy child again. The miracles I witness constantly in my little patch of soil — growth, death, the insect life cycle — feed my soul.
In the fall, as the days became darker earlier and the palette around me faded from emerald green to a dull brown, I could feel a need to perform one last gardening activity to carry me through the winter.
And that’s when I found the garlic.
Charles and I took a glorious vacation to Italy in 2019, before the pandemic made that kind of travel impossible. It was my first time visiting that country, and we had the time of our lives. The people we met were wonderful. The colors of the Amalfi Coast warmed me, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea was sublime and I don’t even have to tell you about the food.
In order to stay within our budget, I cooked dinner in our Airbnb some of the nights. We found a lovely market, where I bought the ingredients for panzanella, the Tuscan bread and tomato salad. I remember being yelled at in Italian by the cashier because I didn’t know that you were supposed to don a plastic glove before you helped yourself to the produce. I have never felt so barbaric.
I had an extra head of garlic left over, and we were leaving in two days. Now is probably a good time to tell you that I am not a typical traveler when it comes to choosing souvenirs to bring home.
I decided that this garlic would be my remembrance of this wonderful trip, and — like the immigrants of years past, who brought familiar foods from their country and planted them here — I was going to grow this Italian variety in my garden in New Jersey.
I am not personally Italian, but I could feel other people’s ancestors nodding in approval.
After carefully wrapped it — and being unsure whether there were penalties for importing produce — I put it in my suitcase. When I got home, I put it in a kitchen cabinet and promptly forgot about it. For two years.
You would think it would have rotted or sprouted, but when I found it last fall, it seemed … OK. What could possibly go wrong if I planted it? The worst thing that could happen is that it wouldn’t sprout.
Garlic is probably one of the easiest things to grow, other than older. You just push a single, unpeeled clove into loose soil, cover it up and stride briskly away. It’s a good idea to water it if your area doesn’t get enough rain, but really, it doesn’t need a lot of care. I cover mine with some straw or wood chips to serve as a blanket through our cold New Jersey winters. In the spring I uncover the plants so they can get some sun.
Garlic has one of the best gardening ROIs in my opinions. You push one clove into the ground and the Earth gives you back an entire head of it.
So what does this have to do with childlike spirit and joy, Deb?
I put my hands in the soil and uncovered the garlic today. The garlic not only survived, but it looks as if it’s off to a very good start. And that contact with the soil felt like someone rebooted me.
After months of feeling mentally and emotionally parched, it’s like someone gave me a drink.
In March, we New Jerseyites are sometimes blessed with a summerlike day. That is my cue to prepare the garden for the summer. It has been a tough winter for a lot of reasons, but the moment I am out in the sunshine with my hands in the dirt, something changes. I find myself smiling bigger than I allow the adult me to smile. I say hello — out loud — to the worms in the soil, who pick their heads up in confusion at the sudden burst of light. I marvel at the biome — with its insects and mycelia and other lifeforms — and the fact that everything in it has the potential to feed me and my family. I find myself humming and drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick.
I am, momentarily, a child again.
When I came into the house, I was sweaty and happy. To cap off that first foray into my happy place, I opened my refrigerator and pulled the bottle of facial toner that I stashed in the door and poured some on a paper towel.
Chilling the toner is key here. You can just splash water on your face, of course, but this will feel better. Witch hazel is inexpensive. This well-loved bottle is rose-scented, which further boosts my mood, and the cold toner feels so good on my skin. You could also buy plain witch hazel and add a splash of rose water. Orange blossom water is good, too.
In my area, the garlic will continue to grow until summer, when the leaves turn brown and the plant sags with fatigue. That’s when it’s time to harvest. I will use a trowel to gently pry the underground bulb loose from the soil, and then I will pull the entire plant up, stalk and all. The garlic will cure in my basement for a week or so, until the outside papery skin is dry. When that’s done, I trim the roots and stalk and use it in cooking.
Once you have the garlic, you should make Sriracha garlic cloves. You may have seen this trend on TikTok, but what they didn’t tell you is that you have to be very patient and let it age in the brine for at least six months, refrigerated. It will just taste like raw garlic coated with Sriracha sauce until then.
That’s not a bad thing, but after six months of letting the Sriracha brine do its work, what you will have is candy with a peppery, tangy, garlicky flavor I am not even kidding you.
I’m telling you, it’s worth the wait, and I have never lied to you as far as you know.
Sriricha Pickled Garlic
A very clean jar
Enough peeled cloves of garlic as will comfortably fit in your very clean jar (Some recipes call for pre-pickling the garlic before starting, but I don’t find that this is necessary)
Sriricha sauce to fill a bit less than 1/2 of your very clean jar (Are you seeing a pattern here? Go sterilize your jar. Don’t forget the lid.)
Diluted apple cider vinegar to fill the rest of the jar to the shoulder (dilute using 50% water, 50% vinegar)
Dried thyme and/or rosemary
Is your jar clean and dry? Good. Now we can proceed.
Place everything except the garlic into the jar. Put the top on and shake the jar until everything seems evenly blended.
Add garlic cloves to the jar (you may wind up with some of the brine overflowing).
Wipe the neck of the jar, inside and out, and close it up. Stick the jar in the back of your fridge and pretend you never made it.
Seriously, that’s the only way I can resist tasting it along the garlic’s pickling journey.
I mean, it’s your garlic, so if you want to taste it, go right ahead. Just know that there are much better days to come.
Now that I have taken the time to feed my spirit, it really feels that way.
Until next time,
P.S. Please tell your friends and family that you and I correspond on the regular. They may want in on this.