Leave it to Connecticut's Master Gardeners to be one jump ahead of the rest of us aspiring garden chefs, not only enjoying their spring peas and greens, but already helping us figure out what to plant next fall.
For Maureen Gillis, that would be garlic. The East Haddam gardener is so enamored with the pungent vegetable that she plants it with her roses. Gillis, who also is president of the Connecticut Master Gardeners Association, the alumni group for those who complete the program offered by the Cooperative Extension Service each year, will lead a class about growing, harvesting and preparing garlic next Monday, June 18, at the extension service office in Haddam. The class is open to the public and counts as credit for master gardeners working on their advanced certification.
No other vegetable or culinary herb has garnered anywhere near the attention that garlic has, according to the Garlic Seed Foundation of Rose, New York. Based on Rose Valley Farm, the educational, nonprofit organization was created in 1984 by a couple of guys who love good garlic-based food and want to find profitable crops and production for small and family farms. According to them, Americans eat only three pounds of the stuff per person per year, compared to 50 pounds that the average person in Asian cultures probably consumes.
"This easy and versatile plant should be a staple in your garden," says Gillis, who plans to entice converts with recipes and samples of some of her favorite garlic dishes while talking about the history, lore and mythology of the plant, as well as its health benefits.
Gillis says garlic is the healthiest for us when we eat it raw. That's because the process of chopping or mashing releases the sulfur-based compounds that give garlic not only its trademark aroma, but also the chemicals that help our bodies.
"Cooking it kills the most beneficial compounds," she says. "So look for ways to serve it chopped and raw."
Gillis prepares an easy tapenade with chopped fresh raw garlic. Another, which she discovered while picking grapes in France last fall, calls for cooked garlic, but she says it's so good she can't resist sharing it.
"There were curried whole cloves of garlic in the farmers market, people just popped them whole into their mouth," says Gillis, who has been perfecting the recipe. "It's something I haven't seen back here."
She also makes a pesto out of garlic scapes, instead of basil, adding them to the parmesan cheese, pine nuts, olive oil and a bit of lemon.
"If you make your own hummus, throw in the scapes pesto," she says. "It's 10 times better than adding just garlic."
But back to the basics of growing garlic. There are two kinds of garlic: hard neck and soft neck.
"Soft neck is the stuff you get in grocery stores; it's easier to grow, bigger and longer storing, but it's not as flavorful," Gillis says. "The hard neck is great to grow around here because it likes the cold weather."
Hard necks also produce scapes, or the characteristic "flower stalks" that can be used as a fresh culinary treat. The triangular nobs on the shoots aren't flowers, but bulbils that take two to three years to become full-blown bulbs.
"Garlic needs a cold period, and it needs a long growing season. You really want to plant it in the fall, around Halloween, and plan to harvest it around the Fourth of July," she says. "We're having this class now to give people time to order it."
Also, don't, try to repurpose cloves bought from the grocery store as seed stock.
"Grocery-store garlic may be treated so it won't even grow, plus you don't know what variety you're getting, and it might be one that won't even grow here," she says.
The class also will cover serious gardening topics of planting, growing and harvesting garlic and dealing with pests and diseases.
The course is $50 for the public and $40 for master gardeners. Advance registration isn't required, but if you want to get a taste of Gillis's garlic concoctions, it's advised. Email Gillis at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Haddam Extension Center is at 1066 Saybrook Road in Haddam.
Suzanne Thompson lives in Old Lyme. Catch her weekly radio show, "CT Outdoors," on WLIS 1420/Old Saybrook and WMRD 1150/Middletown or online at www.wliswmrd.net, Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. She can be reached at email@example.com.