Forty years ago, I moved from Europe to the United States. I was so excited to be here. I loved everything I'd heard and seen about America, and really did think of it as the land of opportunity. Today, I'm happy to be a citizen.
But, I must admit, it was an adjustment at first. In so many ways, I was surprised by American tastes and food habits. I remember the first time I cooked scrambled eggs the soft, creamy way they're served in France -- only to have a guest send them back, with the message that they were undercooked! Customers sometimes wanted mint sauce with their (overcooked) lamb, and ketchup with their steaks.
Another surprise when I first came here was that garlic still seemed a little bit like a novelty. Sure, you expected it in Italian restaurants, and in maybe some other ethnic places. But American home cooks still seemed to rely more on tired jars of garlic salt and garlic powder from the supermarket spice aisle than they did on garlic cloves from the produce department. Unlike in European kitchens, they hadn't become aware of garlic's essential role in adding aromatic complexity to slowly simmered and quickly sauteed dishes alike. And they hadn't yet learned how to tame garlic's unruly, sometimes harsh personality.
An essential way to make garlic more palatable is first to blanch the peeled cloves. Blanching basically refers to precooking an ingredient, usually cut-up vegetables, briefly in a pan of boiling water, and then draining it. For popular side-dish ingredients such as carrots or broccoli, this not only softens the vegetables slightly before further cooking but also -- if they're immediately plunged into ice water after draining -- keeps their colors bright and beautiful.
Blanching garlic cloves, however, provides another benefit: It tames their harshness, adding an aspect of mild sweetness to the still-familiar garlic flavor. The result is garlic that's easier to digest, and that diminishes (if not eliminating completely) the sometimes dreaded "garlic breath."
You can blanch garlic cloves before you include them in stews, braises, or sautes, whether whole or sliced. Some recipes might even call for "double blanching" them -- simply going through the process twice to make them even milder.
For an outstanding example of the remarkable results that come from such a simple kitchen trick, look no further than my recipe for Garlic-Potato Soup. It actually contains as much garlic as it does potato -- an impressive 1/3 to 1/2 cup of peeled cloves per serving. But, thanks to blanching, your guests will be only intrigued and delighted by the bulb's subtle flavor.
GARLIC-POTATO SOUP WITH BASIL OIL AND PROSCIUTTO
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups peeled garlic cloves, about 3/4 pound
1 large baking potato, about 3/4 pound, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups organic chicken broth, heated
Freshly ground white pepper
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves