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.
It was a learning process -- both in the kitchen and in the dining room.
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
1/4 cup packed Italian parsley leaves
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 thin slices prosciutto, cut into thin strips, for garnish
First, blanch the garlic: Put the peeled garlic cloves in a medium saucepan and add cold water to cover. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat; then, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Drain the garlic and return it to the pan. Add the potato and the chicken broth. Season lightly with salt and white pepper. Return the pan to medium-high heat. Bring the broth to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until the potato is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a small, sharp knife, about 20 minutes.
Pour and stir the cream into the simmering soup. Over low heat, bring the liquid back to a simmer.
Meanwhile, prepare the Basil Oil: In a blender, combine the basil, parsley, and olive oil. Blend until smoothly pureed, stopping once or twice if necessary to scrape down the sides of the container with a rubber spatula. Pour the puree through a fine-meshed strainer set over a bowl. Set the strained oil aside. Wash out the blender container thoroughly.
Working in two or more batches to avoid overfilling the blender, transfer the soup into the blender and blend until smoothly pureed, following the manufacturer's instructions to avoid spattering the hot liquid. Transfer the pureed soup to a clean saucepan.
Gently reheat the pureed soup over low heat. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary, with a little more salt and white pepper.
To serve, ladle the soup into heated bowls. Arrange strips of prosciutto on top of the soup and, with a teaspoon, drizzle on some of the Basil Oil. Serve immediately.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun