With the color and feasting of the holidays behind us, we enter the part of the Hebrew year sometimes called Mar Cheshvan, the “bitter” month of Cheshvan. Why? Because of all the Hebrew months, only in the month of Cheshvan are there no Jewish holidays.
According to Kabbalistic thought, this is a time to turn inwards and begin doing the work of rooting ourselves, preparing for the internal period of winter darkness. Likewise, as the leaves begin to turn and the growing season comes to a close, we reach one of my favorite milestones of the gardening season: garlic planting.
In our Mid-Atlantic climate, we plant single garlic cloves in October or November, covering the soil with a thick layer of mulch. They get established all fall, cozying themselves down there, beginning to establish roots and then going dormant over the winter beneath the snow and ice.
In the early spring, they send their distinctive shoots up through the now-soggy mat of straw. Because they are already established, they don’t need to wait for the gardener or farmer to prepare the bed—with just the first sunshine of spring, they are ready to go.
The garlic plant grows throughout March, April and May. In June, some varieties of garlic send up a soaring, swan-necked flower bud called the garlic scape, one of the truly special seasonal treats you only get when you live close to your food source. In order for the plant to devote its energy to forming a nice, fat garlic bulb, the garlic scape must be snapped off in June, while it is still tender. The garlic scape is like a garlic-flavored asparagus shoot and can be added to sautés, pureed for garlic scape pesto or pickled in a bright vinegar brine.
Meanwhile, with the scape broken off and devoured, the garlic plant knows to devote all its energy to making a garlic head. At some point in July, the garlic head is fully formed and ready for harvest. Each single clove, planted in October of the previous year, will have magically turned into a whole head of delicious, healthy garlic.
But wait, there’s more! If you have deer or other garden pests, garlic is one of the crops they won’t bother, so it’s a great thing to plant around the edges of your garden or yard. And have I mentioned the health benefits? Most people already know that garlic is good for you, but did you know it can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and boost your immune system? People have been using garlic as a folk remedy for everything from the flu to vampires, and, among many Jews, to keep away the evil eye, since the dawn of time.
In the kitchen, garlic is a powerful base flavor for so many kinds of cooking, from ancient Roman to the most cutting-edge cuisine. Its rich, pungent edge adds a depth that is difficult to replace. But one of the best, and easiest, things to do with a good, large-cloved, locally grown head of garlic is to roast it whole and then serve it as part of an appetizer spread with slices of baguette.
Top photo: New Morning Farm’s garlic at FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle. Photo courtesy of Ariel Pasternak.