If you go to Baja California, Mexico, and don't like garlic, you have gone to the wrong country.
Ajo , Spanish for garlic, is a pervasive ingredient of the Mexican cuisine, and purple Mexican garlic is the first fresh garlic seen in the markets in spring. The fresh purple garlic braids can be put to many uses.
Mexicans love their ajo . They make a traditional garlic soup, or a garlic mayonnaise very similar to the Mediterranean aioli, or they pickle garlic with hot peppers.
Recently in Baja, garlic was found in the form of crispy garlic--coarsely or finely chopped garlic sauteed until crisp and golden and used as a topping for various dishes. This imparts an earthy, understated flavor that allows the starring components of the dish to shine.
Garlic used to disappear discreetly into food. Now it is up front and visible. In San Ignacio, at Quichuiles ("Chewies") restaurant, grilled cabrilla (a Mexican sea bass) fillets were topped with a layer of crispy garlic bits. Baja garlic bread is often made by cooking finely chopped garlic until crispy golden, using the butter to lightly coat the slices and then spooning the crispy garlic bits on the top of the loaf.
Purple Baja garlic is hardier and keeps longer than the white variety. When fresh, the cloves are clear and juicy but encased in a tough husk that doesn't dry thoroughly, making it hard to peel. One trick is to smash the cloves with the side of a chef's knife before peeling.
If you're headed south of the border and want to bring back garlic, look for braids with the stems still partially green and with firm, heavy heads of garlic. If the heads are dried and the cloves are separating, it's probably last year's garlic.
If you have strings of garlic, use it lavishly.
Pat Holladay, travel consultant from San Diego, says her guests are delighted with whole roasted garlic heads served with French bread for an appetizer and used with other bright vegetables for patio parties or picnics.
PAT HOLLADAY'S ROASTED GARLIC APPETIZER
3/4 cup olive oil
4 large heads garlic, cut crosswise about 1/3 from root end
3 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch diagonal slices
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 sweet red peppers, roasted
12 French bread slices
Heat olive oil in saute pan and add garlic, cut-side down. Saute until crispy brown. Remove garlic to shallow baking pan. Arrange with zucchini slices. Pour garlic oil and lemon juice over all. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cut red peppers in halves lengthwise, removing seeds. Place, skin-side up, on broiler pan and broil near heat until skin chars, 10 to 15 minutes. Place in plastic bag to cool. Rub off charred skin. Cut lengthwise into wide strips. Add to baking pan with garlic and zucchini.
Roast vegetables, uncovered, at 350 degrees about 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Garlic should be soft enough to spread easily. Arrange garlic, zucchini and roasted pepper strips on individual serving plates with some oil.
Serve hot or at room temperature with toasted bread slices and lemon wedges. This may be refrigerated and returned to room temperature. To eat, use forks to pop garlic from its skin and place on bread. Makes 4 servings.