When I mentioned seasonal garlic in one of my recipes, a friend asked, “Garlic has a season?”
Oh yes, everything has a season. We just may not see it, especially for those ubiquitous everyday ingredients like potatoes, onions and garlic. But seasons they do have and their seasons should dictate how you use all three.
Like many people who do not grow professionally, there are times when our fields are lean and we must buy from other farmers or make do eating negi every day. Family members tend to rebel, so we are lucky to have other organic grower friends in our area to turn to when we are between seasons. And precisely right now, we are in the most barren season of all: hazakaiki (literally: “on the edge of the season”). Late winter and early spring vegetables have come and gone, while the early summer shoots are still struggling their way to maturity. Farmers who started their seeds in green houses are cropping vegetables now, so I break some of my unwritten rules about waiting to buy edamame, tomatoes or potatoes before ours are ready. I cook lunch for the kids at Sunny-Side Up!, and the vegetables that Fukuda-san, Suka-san and Iwata-san grow, give me the essential inspiration and energy I need to create meals for those kids, day in and day out.
Garlic, though, is one of those crops that we are never too successful at producing. So, no guilt there about buying locally. And by some lucky stroke of fate, a few farmers in the next town over are growing rose garlic. I first read about rose garlic in the Seeds of Change catalog. I loved the sound of the small cloves with their purported delicate flavor. I’m more of a "small is better" kind of person, so don’t buy into the gigantic fruit varieties that are so popular here in Japan. Today, tracking down Japanese heirloom seeds is no easy feat, but twenty years ago, it was nearly impossible. We ordered our seeds from Seeds of Change and along with those seeds, a couple pounds of garlic. Too bad they didn’t make it through the agriculture inspection.
A few years later, inspired by A Food Lover’s Guide to France, my boys and I began meeting brother, Peter, and niece, Olga, in Provence every summer. It was June, so new garlic flooded the market. Rose garlic, how providential. I stuffed some in my suitcase each trip, and no one was the wiser. But school and other obligations have derailed our yearly summer sojourn in Provence. I’m pining away for the sun, the lunches at Le Bistrot du Paradou and hooking up with Slow Food Provence Méditerranée friends. Perhaps I’ll have to go on my own.
As for our garlic “seeds,” since I discovered those farmers growing rose garlic in a neighboring town, we now have our own local source. Who would have thought? They're not organic, but I’ll overlook that. (Yes, I do go back on my principles. Limes for mojitos or margaritas are from Mexico. Sigh. Andrew razzes me for my lack of conviction.) The local rose garlic appears in the beginning of June and is sold out by the end of the month, so every year I order about 10 kilos to get me through the year. The alternative is white elephant garlic from China, a bit rank and totally lacking in subtlety.
Over the years, I’ve tried various storage methods. Tadaaki always insisted on hanging the small crop of garlic that he grew under the eaves of the chicken coops. But the cloves turned to dust after several months and never made it to Christmas. Tadaaki completely ignored my logical advice, but not having grown the garlic, I had to shrug that off. I learned to use our homegrown garlic quickly, before it disintegrated. On the other hand, the garlic I bought was mine to store as I liked. I tried refrigeration, but the air was too moist and the garlic tended to sprout. Room temperature in the larder was not the answer either. Eventually, I discovered that garlic stayed best when packed loosely in thick American supermarket bags (rolled up, but not sealed airtight), and left in the kura, a traditional storage house that maintains a cellar temperature through out most of the year. There are some rats that scamper about, and although they gnaw at the wine bottle foils, they don’t get into the garlic. And these days, Tadaaki has given in about where I store his garlic as well.
Tadaaki grows garlic most years, though his crop is usually small and would be quickly depleted, should I use it to feed the SSU! kids. I ration his garlic out bit by bit, usually only for salads constructed from our own baby lettuces. Also, the garlic bulbs we grow sometimes melt in the field, engulfed by monster weeds. As the boys and I were often gone in June (cropping season) and Tadaaki is busy with the rice planting at this time, our garlic crop suffered. But this is changing since we are no longer traveling in June and I am more involved in supporting Tadaaki’s work on the fields. When in Japan, Christopher has always been an invaluable right-hand man to Tadaaki, but will be leaving soon for college. As for the younger boys, Japanese school and basketball club have swallowed them up, so I suppose that now just leaves me. Gulp.
In a fit of I-don’t-know-what, Tadaaki decided to till the field where he had planted onions and garlic, so cropped them early. Too early. Though to give Tadaaki his due, it was a miserable crop to begin with, and probably not worth leaving in the field. So much nicer to gaze over the pristine richly brown dirt, nary a weed in sight and begin one’s summer planting with a clean canvas. Much more satisfying than leaving a single scraggly line of alliums to mar the vista.
I found Tadaaki’s newly cropped garlic in a heap on the garage floor, mingled in with some fresh-cropped onions. Moist earth still clinging to their bulbs, the garlic and onions were all in danger of molding. I separated them and dried the garlic a bit on the gravel in front of our house, heated by the late afternoon sun.
I also brought a few teeny bulbs into the house and set to work peeling them to mash up with salt and put in my salad that evening.
But as I peeled, a thought came to me. Miso. These little teeny cloves, not much bigger than a one year old’s pinky must be sensational dipped in the organic brown rice miso I had in my fridge. Earthy, rustic salt against juicy hot. Yum. I tried one. Yum. I had to try another, and another. But finally I forced myself to stop after about eight of those weensy cloves. Before bed, I just had to have a few more, but regretted it the next morning. I woke up to garlic in my brain. Over the course of the following two weeks, I was addicted to this little snack and struggled to keep myself in check. The only reason why I stopped was because I ran out of that special miso and my everyday one was too light to be an effective foil to the garlic. I’ve been busy writing, so haven’t had time to make the trek up to Yamaki to buy more and don’t trust anyone else to buy the right one. The taste haunts me and now I’m craving that miso with Tadaaki’s new garlic. Today. I’ll go today. (as soon as I post)
New Garlic & Miso: I overlooked miso for years but, a bit like taking an old friend as a lover, am now completely enthralled with it. My favorite miso is made in Kamiizumi-mura, a mountain town bordering ours. Yamaki Jozo is family-owned and part of our Slow Food community. But do not despair, you can buy Yamaki brown rice miso in the U.S., packaged under the name Ohsawa. The brown rice miso has enough depth of flavor to hold up to the garlic, and no distraction of the underlying wheat tones that you get with wheat miso. I couldn’t have told you that a month ago, but recently I’ve been yanking off stalks of wheat to taste wheat seeds in the field with SSU! kids.
Spoon out a dollop of miso onto a small plate. Peel very young garlic, dip in miso, scooping up about the same volume of miso to garlic and eat sparingly. Watch out, this is completely addicting and totally unforgettable. (And can lead to an upset tummy if over-consumed.) Also fantastic with radishes, Japanese cucumbers, small green peppers or mild chiles.