For me, the smell of garlic sauteeing gently in olive oil is the quintessential smell of food, of hearth and of home.
No wonder: I was weaned on garlic soup. This dish of the gods started out, like many others, as a dish of peasants. The list of ingredients says it all: water, dried out bread, lots of garlic, and an egg.
You start by heating a quart of salted water (or, if you are rich, a quart of broth). Meanwhile you chop up your leftover “French” bread that has gotten too hard to eat. Next you brown lots of garlic in olive oil, making sure not to burn it. What does “lots of garlic” mean to a Spaniard? As many as 15 cloves per quart of liquid. Dump the bread and the oil and garlic into the water and, at the last minute, break an egg or two into it, swirling it with a wooden spoon so that the white hardens into lovely threads. Don\’t let the soup boil, but serve it hot.
Like all such dishes, garlic soup tolerates all kinds of additions: sauteed peppers, bits of ham or chorizo, chopped vegetables. But our family always had it in its pure form.
Garlic sauteeing in olive oil was for me the start of all things good, especially the sauces that adorned our meat dishes—chicken, rabbit, snails….Then there is garlic rubbed on a substantial piece of bread, on which you then rub a ripe tomato until the juice soaks in, followed by a sprinkling of olive oil and salt. This is pa amb tomaquet, the ultimate Catalan soul food.
Have I met a clove of garlic I didn\’t like? I don\’t think so, though I detest the chopped up garlic that comes in bottles. True to my Mediterranean DNA, I can consume large quantities of garlic at a sitting. At lunch in a restaurant one day, having first obtained my husband\’s permission, I ate as my only entree an entire baked head of garlic.
This brings me to one of the minor tragedies of my married life: my husband doesn\’t like garlic. His entire family dislikes it. They have German and Irish blood in their veins, and garlic is an alien, evil substance to them.
I have a theory about why I married a man who dislikes garlic. Research has shown that women choose as mates men whose immune systems are completely different from those of their (the women\’s) fathers, so their offspring will enjoy a broader spectrum of protection. I\’m sure that my father\’s immune system reeked of garlic, so to balance things I unconsciously chose a man whose only previous exposure had been to the garlic bread served in pizza joints. The proof: we had amazingly healthy kids.
In deference to my husband\’s tastes, I have had to rein in my passion and use garlic in less than industrial quantities. Last week, however, I went on a garlic rampage. I chopped up six large cloves, fried them in olive oil, and drizzled the contents of the pan over a piece of bread. That was my lunch, and it was fabulous.
Now I know what you\’re thinking: doesn\’t her breath smell horrible? Well, as compared to what? If you go to a Mediterranean country, you soon stop smelling people\’s garlic breath, because you are as full of it as everybody else. In this country, I often smell garlic on people\’s breath. It doesn\’t exactly make me want to get close to them, but it doesn\’t gross me out, either. Instead, I immediately think, hmmm, I wonder what he/she had to eat? Was it good? When was the last time I had garlic?
I heard on NPR recently that in Georgia—the area that became famous because of the large proportion of centenarians in the population–people consume a cup of mint tea with a bunch of garlic cloves pressed in it for breakfast every day. The older they are, the more cloves they put in: five cloves if they are in their eighties or nineties, and six to eight cloves if they are over a hundred.
I\’m going to try this tomorrow and let you know how it turns out.