Superstition has it that it can ward off evil spirits. Health food enthusiasts have long maintained that it will ward off germs. Lovers have always known that garlic--an odoriferous herb--is likely to ward off affection.
Popular in any number of culinary preparations, this is one spice that people either love or hate. Come Saturday, those who love it will have an opportunity to buy fresh, locally harvested garlic at the Ventura Farmers Market.
Since planting in winter, Russ Dilando has been tending his small crop of red Italian garlic in upper Ojai. His first batch is likely to go fast once loyal customers realize that he's back at the market after a long, freeze-induced hiatus.
"The garlic I'm harvesting now," Dilando said recently, "was planted Jan. 1."
Last year's deep-freeze delayed his usual planting date, and customers have had to wait an extra month to get their hands on this season's bounty.
Not a particularly fast-growing herb, garlic will take months to mature after fields have been sown.
"There's a rule of thumb to follow when growing garlic," Dilando said. The winter and summer solstice are key. "You plant it the shortest day of the year--Dec. 21--and take it out the longest day of the year--June 21. The bulb is a cool-weather crop, and we try to capture all the rain."
From each season's harvest, Dilando will store a sizable portion of the take. This will be used as next season's seeding.
"We plant single cloves, which then become our future bulbs," he said. Seeds are never used; growth would be painfully slow. "If planted from seed, you can expect it will take two years to mature," Dilando said.
From the top side, the garlic--a member of the lily family--looks like nothing more than stick-straight green stalks.
"We don't allow the plants to flower," Dilando said. "The tops are sliced off" to ensure larger bulbs.
When harvest time finally nears, the farmer takes advantage of the garlic plant's natural ability to survive during times of drought.
"When the plants start showing signs of age, such as the leaves begin to turn yellow, you cut back on watering," Dilando said. "This forces the bulbs to mature."
Essentially, the plant will stop its above-ground proliferation and conserve water by storing it in the bulbs. "It's a kind of self-preservation," Dilando said.
Dilando enters his field and gently thrusts his pitchfork into the earth, upturning his red Italian garlic.
According to Dilando, the red Italian is the creme de la creme of garlic. "It is simply wonderful," he said. "The regular stuff you see in the stores and the elephant garlic--it's too weak for me. Those are sociable garlics. The red Italian is easily stronger, much more of a garlic taste."
Dilando suggested the following for garlic lovers needing a quick fix:
"Roast a whole bulb for 10 to 15 minutes at about 325 degrees. You'll be able to smell it--it's real sweet. Once you remove it, peel one of the cloves. It will be very soft, almost creamy. Just spread it on some French bread. If you're a garlic fanatic, that's an easy way to enjoy it."
Like most herbs, garlic provides foods with more than just flavor-enhancement, Dilando said. "Garlic is a great source of the trace element selenium." Crushed garlic can also help alleviate the pain and itching of insect bites, he said.
"I also make a weak garlic solution that I use to spray on some of my other plants. It keeps the bugs away. Just mash two garlic cloves and add it to a half cup of water and lightly spray it on with a misting bottle," he said.
Garlic is renowned for keeping something else at a safe distance--friends and loved ones.
Dilando has a solution for problematic garlic breath. "I'm growing Italian parsley," he said. "Parsley is a wonderful breath freshener. This is different than the normal stuff you see. It has big, shiny leaves about two inches across. Just chew on a little bit."
Dilando will also offer a variety of goodies, including purple string beans, squashes and other fresh herbs at the farmers market. And he is selling another fresh bulbous herb this week.
"I'm growing a variety of shallots that are larger than most you see in the grocery store," he said. "They almost look like drumsticks."
* WHERE AND WHEN
Russ Dilando will sell his Italian red garlic at the Ventura Farmers Market on Saturdays only. The market is open from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays at Santa Clara and Figueroa streets and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays at Mills Road and Main Street in the Montgomery Ward parking lot. For market information, call 529-6266.
SERVING SUGGESTION GARLIC STEAK
This week's serving suggestion comes courtesy of M. Cocoa Berken, chef and proprietor of Cocoa's Place in Ventura.
Prepare this with a healthy appetite.
Country French Garlic New York Steak with Mushrooms
12 - ounce New York steak
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and diced
1 yellow pepper, sliced and diced
2 large onions, sliced and diced
Cover bottom of large skillet with olive oil, heat very well. Add mushrooms, garlic and peppers and heat. While stirring, cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Brown onions in a separate skillet. Add onions to the mixture and stir. Add white pepper to taste.
Use liquid garlic to rub a strip around the outside edge of the steak, about a half-inch onto the top and bottom surfaces of the steak. Do not rub over entire steak surface. Broil to taste.
Place skillet mixture on a hot plate, pat and flatten down with a paper towel and place steak on top and serve.