Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Garlic, Mosquitoes, Vampires . . . and Bad Breath

Last week’s post on Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic got me thinking, not about the dish’s qualification as an easy and heart-warming post-holiday dinner (which was the point of the post), but about its claim to fame: its legendary forty cloves of garlic. More specifically, I got thinking about our contemporary love affair with garlic. Hard to imagine cooking dinner these days without mincing up at least a few cloves of garlic. But this hasn’t always been the case. Not, at least, for us English speakers.

When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled through Italy in the early 19th century, he was horrified to learn that women—yes, even women—ate the pungent little cloves. “There are two Italies,” he wrote home; “The one is the most sublime and lovely contemplation that can be conceived by the imagination of man; the other is the most degraded, disgusting, and odious. What do you think? Young women of rank actually eat—you will never guess what–garlick!” Nothing, to Shelley, could better illustrate Italy’s degraded condition than the fact that its women ate garlic. Even Shelley,  iconoclastic romantic poet that he was, simply could not fathom kissing a young woman with garlic-scented breath. 

But then Shelley was simply echoing traditional English views voiced over a hundred years earlier by the gardener and diarist John Evelyn in his Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets:

Garlick, Allium; dry towards excess; and tho' both by Spaniards and Italians, and the more southern people, familiarly eaten, with almost everything, and esteem'd of such singular vertue to help concoction, and thought a charm against all infection and poyson  . . . We absolutely forbid it entrance into our salleting, by reason of its intolerable Rankness, and which made it so detested of old; that the eating of it was (as we read) part of the punishment for such as had committed the horrid'st crimes. To be sure, 'tis not for ladies palats. nor those who court them.

Deemed inappropriate for young ladies’ palates (or for those who court them), yet force-fed to criminals: such was the distaste in which garlic was held.

And yet, by the same token, it was also believed to be a “charm against infection and poison”—which claim, by the way, has been confirmed by modern medicine that has identified garlic’s strong smell to result from the sulfur-containing molecule that results when cloves are chopped or crushed, thereby releasing the enzyme allinaise which converts the amino acid alliin into the smelly but antibiotic and antifungal compound allicin. Thus, whether for good or for ill, it's only when garlic is chopped, crushed, or chewed that it gives off the powerful odor that makes your breath smell—and your skin and blood as well. Apparently mosquitoes find the smell unappealing and so don’t bite garlic eaters who are thus spared such mosquito-borne diseases as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus.

But mosquitoes are hardly unique in their dislike of garlic Just think of vampires and their legendary aversion to it. If you want to protect yourself against the likes of Count Dracula, you’d be wise to follow Bram Stoker’s advice: rub garlic over your window sashes, door jambs, and around the fireplace “to ensure that every whiff of air that might get in would be laden with the garlic smell.” Take the further precaution of adorning yourself with a wreath of garlic flowers around your neck.

Interesting, isn't it, that despite its medicinal properties—not to mention the protection it provides against blood-suckers of all shapes and sizes—garlic was nonetheless forbidden to young ladies. Apparently it was better they die of malaria or join the ranks of the undead than suffer the indignity of halitosis, or, in plain old English, bad breath.

Two final tidbits on the subject of bad breath. First, it was another pungent allium from which garlic derives its second syllable: the leek (gar was the Old English word for spear; perhaps the long bladelike leaves of the garlic plant were thought to resemble spears)—and bad breath was associated with leeks as well. According to Isabella Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, “to prevents its tainting the breath, the leek should be well boiled.” 

The second tidbit brings me full circle back to my Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. Since it's only when they're chopped, crushed, or chewed that garlic cloves release their odiferous fumes, by cooking them whole, one can enjoy their mellow, creamy sweetness with no ill effect.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic; Or, A Wintry Dinner for the Weary

On the one hand, an intimate wintry dinner with friends is just the thing to restore your faith in the pleasures of hearth and home. Nothing like a fire crackling away and the warm glow of candlelight to make you feel that all’s right with the world. On the other hand, when that intimate dinner falls days after the excesses of the holidays, it might also be just the thing to make you wish you could spoon up a bowl of oatmeal and call it a night. There’s only so much festivity one can endure and after you’ve hit your limit, you’ve hit your limit.

If, your holiday overload notwithstanding, friends have nonetheless been invited, something obviously must be served. But what? When the thought of another roast is enough to make you retire your oven mitts and resort to your drawer of take-out menus, here’s a dinner that will save the day. It balances seasonal conviviality and the simplicity of a family supper. Nothing takes too much time and, apart from slicing potatoes and apples, there’s almost no effort involved. Not including salt & pepper or olive oil & butter, no dish calls for more than five ingredients and those five called for are on almost everyone’s hit parade. Who doesn’t love chicken, garlic, potatoes, salad, and apples? 

Don't, by the way, be alarmed by the quantity of garlic. When you leave the cloves whole, you don't release the sulfur compounds that give garlic its characteristic & strong taste; left whole, the cloves will soften into a sweet mellowness. In fact, despite the traditional name of this dish, I often add more than 40 cloves.

Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
3 chicken breasts & 3 thighs - skin removed,
each piece cut in half and sprinkled with salt & pepper
40 whole peeled garlic cloves
½ cup chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine

Heat the oil and butter over high heat in a large skillet and brown chicken pieces on each side. Lower heat and add garlic, making sure the cloves settle on the bottom of the skillet. Sauté for about 10 minutes. Add the wine and stock; bring to a simmer; cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes. That’s it.

Potato Galette

4 russet potatoes - peeled & sliced into very thin discs
 (if you have a mandoline, now’s the time to use it)
3 tablespoons butter

Melt the butter in a 9-10” inch non-stick skillet. Pour most of it into a small bowl. Layer the potato discs into the skillet, drizzling with the reserved butter and sprinkling with salt and pepper as you go along. Cover tightly & brown over a low heat for about 20-25 minutes; slide onto a plate & invert back into the skillet. Cover & brown the other side for another 20 minutes or so. Slide onto serving plate & cut into wedges. (You can, of course, sprinkle in some minced garlic and/or herbs if you like.)

Endive Salad with Walnuts & Blue Cheese

3-4 heads Belgian endive
½-1 cup toasted walnut halves
4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons walnut oil (or olive oil)

Separate endive leaves but keep them whole. Toss in a large bowl with the toasted walnuts & the crumbled Roquefort. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon juice and the oil; season with salt and pepper. Toss onto the salad.

Apple Tart

4 cooking apples – peeled, cored, quartered, and each quarter sliced into quarters
3 egg yolks
¾ cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons sugar
Pre-baked 9-11” tart shell – you can buy one or make your own (I make mine in the food processor in the usual way, using 1 ½ cups flour, a pinch of salt, 7 tablespoons butter, and about 4 tablespoons ice water; refrigerate until cold; roll out & line a tart shell; line with foil and pie weights; bake at 375° for 20 minutes; remove foil & bake for another 20 minutes. Let cool before filling.)

Arrange apple slices in concentric circles in the pre-baked tart shell. Whisk together the yolks, cream, and 3 tablespoons of sugar. Pour over the apples. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar on top. Bake at 375° for about 45 minutes or until very golden-brown. You can broil for a minute or two if you want it even browner. Serve warm or at room temperature.