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blog-chicken w: garlci

Garlic is the most potent member of the allium family (which includes onions, leeks, shallots, and so forth), and its great abundance at the farmers market this time of year tends to engender awe and, sometimes, confusion. “My girlfriend sent me out to shop for dinner,” a twenty-something said last week, holding up one of the fat bulbs shown above. “I need three cloves of garlic. Is this a clove?”

I was trying to fit a ruffled disk of escarole into a too-small (but recycled!) plastic bag, and it took a minute to realize he was talking to me. “Nope, that’s what you call a head of garlic,” I said, and seized the moment to grab four of them for myself. “A head should give you—I don’t know—about eight to ten cloves.” He nodded his thanks, then, as we edged into the check-out line, put down the book he was carrying to fish out his wallet. I had to laugh when I saw the cover—Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. I practically tugged on his sleeve. “Hey, have you read Provence?” I asked. “Ford Madox Ford loved garlic!”

Ford was a wonderful, very personal English writer who swanned around Paris in the 1920s with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Pound—you know, the usual crowd. Although the borders between his fiction and nonfiction tended to blur, Ford was quite sensibly convinced that no one could be “completely whole either physically or mentally” without “a reasonable amount of garlic” in their diet. No surprise, then, that he felt most at home in the south of France, where garlic is as elemental as earth, wind, water, and fire.

Some decades later, Richard Olney, another expat (from Iowa), moved to a Provence village and, over the next 30-odd years, wrote or edited more than 35 books on food and wine. He observed, in the influential Simple French Food, that the flavors of Provençal food tend to be direct and uncomplicated, reflecting the sharp clarity of the light and the landscape. The rough magic conjured by his words is perfectly illustrated by one of the most provocatively named dishes on the planet, Chicken With Forty Cloves of Garlic.

In truth, it’s a homey preparation with few ingredients, and one of our favorite Sunday suppers during cold weather. It’s also a lesson in the transformative power of slow, moist cooking in a covered pot: The chicken turns juicy and tender, and the garlic loses its pungency and becomes mellow and creamy.

Most recipes call for unpeeled cloves, with the recommendation that they be squeezed from the husk onto toasted bread at table. In the recipe below, however, from The Gourmet Cookbook, the cloves are peeled. “We may have taken inspiration from Gourmet’s France [1978],” mused Zanne Stewart, the magazine’s former executive food editor. “That recipe came from a restaurant chef in France. Oh, and the recipe also calls for white veal stock—just what we all have kicking around in the fridge!” We snorted in unison.

“And then there was Sally Darr’s recipe, from La Tulipe, back in the eighties,” Zanne continued. “I’m pretty sure she peeled the cloves first, too. But I like mine unpeeled—the flavor is more subtle.”

In this day and age, I think it all comes down to the garlic. Most of what you’ll find at the supermarket is imported from China, and it can taste excessively harsh. I can’t tell you why, exactly—it could be the particular strain of garlic cultivated, or maybe dubious growing, handling, or storage practices. But if that’s the garlic hand I’m dealt, then it can’t hurt to mute its stridency by cooking the cloves in their form-fitting papery wrappers.

The stuff I picked up at the Greenmarket, though, is another matter. It’s a type of hardneck garlic called rocambole, and a signature crop of organic farmer Keith Stewart. As you may have gathered from previous posts, including last week’s, his farm supplies us with the makings of countless delicious meals. Rocambole garlics have a rich, deep well-rounded flavor—there’s a hint of muskiness, for good measure—that turns a simple braised bird into something heroic.

The downside? A rocambole isn’t an especially good keeper. Under professional storage conditions (cold, dry, circulating air), it can last more than half a year, but home cooks pretty much need to use it or lose it.

Which is where Chicken With Forty Cloves of Garlic really comes in handy. Even though the dish is a great family supper, don’t be afraid to serve it to company. The chicken is surprisingly delicate in flavor, and guests can take as many or as few garlic cloves as they want. If there are any cloves leftover, they are delicious smooshed and stirred into mashed potatoes, soups, vinaigrettes—or mayo, for sandwiches.

Yikes, I almost forgot. One last note on the bird! Browning a whole chicken can be a bit fraught—you are dealing with a generous amount of hot oil, after all. So feel free to cut the chicken into serving pieces before searing, or simply use whatever chicken parts you prefer. You’ll need to adjust the cooking time somewhat, but that’s a piece of cake. When it’s done, you’ll know: it will smell absolutely ravishing—and make you want to move to Provence.

Chicken With Forty Cloves of Garlic

From The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Serves 4 (which means 1 head of garlic apiece—yum)

1 (4-pound) chicken, left whole or cut into serving pieces

½ teaspoon coarse salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 scant cup olive oil

2 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs

1 fresh rosemary sprig

1 fresh sage sprig

1 Turkish bay leaf or ½ California bay leaf

1 celery rib

40 garlic cloves (from about 4 heads), peeled or not (see above discussion)

Accompaniment: slices of baguette (or, as Richard Olney would say, any rough country bread), toasted or grilled

1. Put a rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 350ºF. Sprinkle chicken inside and out with salt and pepper. Tie legs together with kitchen string and fold wings under chicken. Heat oil in a 6- to 8-quart wide heavy ovenproof pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Add chicken and sear, turning it carefully, until golden brown all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate.

2. Tie herbs and celery together with string to make a bouquet garni and add to pot. Scatter garlic in pot and put chicken, breast side up, on top. Cover tightly, transfer to oven, and bake, basting twice, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh (without touching bone) registers 170ºF, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let stand 10 minutes; reserve pan juices.

3. Spread roasted garlic on toasts and cut chicken into serving pieces. Serve chicken drizzled with some of the pan juices.

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