This week Graziana from Erbe in Cucina is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I have been cooking with not one, not two, but three new and exciting types of garlic. It started with the Real Food Festival, where I picked up a beautiful bronze bulb of smoked garlic. The intense aroma of this is just incredible; it has an immensely appetising quality to it. You wouldn't pick up a bulb of normal garlic and consider eating it there and then, yet the smoked variety has a sort of sweetness and mellowness to it that invites immediate eating (I wouldn't recommend it though). I was trying to think of the perfect recipe to showcase its wonderful qualities, when two more exciting ingredients appeared on my radar.
The second and third varieties are both products of a weekend trip to Borough Market in London. I always think Oxford's market is pretty cosmopolitan; you can find most weird and wonderful ingredients there (kumquats, salsify, loquats, granadillas, Jerusalem artichokes...). Yet the fruit and veg section of Borough Market never fails to delight me with some unexpected surprise. Back in February it was the sight of gorgeous yellow quinces, months after they'd disappeared from the market in Oxford; then it was the two fat teal I found at a butchers' stall there, having never managed to track down the elusive bird elsewhere. Last weekend it was the sight of huge bunches of wild garlic leaves and flowers.
I've heard a lot about the wonders of foraging and the merits of wild garlic (primarily through Masterchef winner Mat Follas, whose restaurant is actually named 'The Wild Garlic', possibly after a dish that helped to win him Masterchef and also because he's a keen forager), but have never got round to attempting to find some for myself, and I have certainly never seen it for sale anywhere. Yet it was there: delicate bunches of the leaves and flowers, that I would have mistaken for some kind of house plant had I not seen the sign. They looked like the leaves I would normally peel off my bunches of lilies before putting them in water. Intrigued and delighted by a new ingredient, I bought a bunch immediately. It went in my fridge for a few days, and I now understand why they say it's easy to forage for wild garlic: you just follow your nose. I think my fridge will retain the pungent smell of these leaves for weeks to come.
I thought my garlic-related surprises were over for the day, until I stumbled across a bunch of 'elephant garlic'. The first thing that struck me was its gorgeous purple and white colouring; the second its enormity. It looked almost like a comically exaggerated bulb of garlic. Equally intrigued by this curious product, I bought some. A little research informed me that it is milder than normal garlic, and can be eaten raw in salads. I just love the sturdiness of it, with its fat stalk and huge purple-skinned cloves.
There's probably nothing I enjoy cooking more than a good risotto, and it felt like time for one. It also seemed the obvious solution to an abundance of garlic; I figured the rich, creamy rice would make a perfect base for such diversity of flavour. I also had a bag of carnaroli risotto rice that I brought back from Vercelli in April, and which was recommended to me by the man in the shop as the best rice for risotto, so naturally I was eager to put it to the test (ultimately, I can conclude that risotto rice is risotto rice, and I think maybe I'm not quite Italian enough to appreciate the nuanced difference between arborio and carnaroli - apart from that Tesco charges twice the price of the former for the latter - but it was very tasty).
As luscious as I envisaged my garlic risotto would be, I figured it needed another dimension. Normally when I cook risotto I add something for texture, like bacon, mushrooms, leeks, or peas. However, I didn't want to distract from the diverse garlicky flavours. The answer came miraculously to me in the form of mushrooms. Initially I considered just frying some in butter and spooning them on top of the risotto, but then I thought that stuffed mushrooms would look much prettier. It would also enable me to take advantage of the beautiful flat cup mushrooms that I've often spied in the market here; they are so clearly meant to be the vehicle for some kind of gorgeous stuffing, and it would be rude not to oblige.
I roasted the mushrooms in the oven for about 45 minutes, drizzled with a little olive oil, seasoning, and some sprigs of thyme. The key to roasting mushrooms is to cook far more than you think you'll need; they shrink a surprising amount in the heat. They also turn golden and wrinkled at the sides and beautifully dark and juicy in the middle, and exude lots of delicious mushroom liquor. I added this to my risotto as well as the stock.
For the risotto, I used my normal recipe, but added smoked garlic instead of normal garlic. The stock was, in an impressively home-economic fashion, homemade chicken stock from the last roast I had. One thing that surprised me about this was how much salt I needed to add to the risotto to achieve the taste I'd consider normal. It makes you realise just how much salt is added to commercial stock cubes - slightly terrifying. Anyway, I finished off the basic risotto recipe with sprigs of thyme, lots of seasoning, grated parmesan, and my two other types of garlic. The leaves I finely shredded and stirred in, and the elephant garlic I finely chopped and sprinkled over towards the end of the cooking. Elephant garlic is apparently milder than normal garlic, though I nibbled a bit and it was still quite strong, so I let it cook in the rice and stock for a few minutes to take the edge off.
I spooned the garlicky risotto onto the juicy mushrooms, grated over a little more parmesan, and finished with a drizzle of truffle oil to really bring out both the mushroom and the garlic flavour. There's something about truffles that is reminiscent of garlic - and it's not just me that thinks this: my Flavour Thesaurus (a great book for any keen cook, by the way) agrees. The two work perfectly together, as garlic and mushrooms do. Even better when the garlic is incorporated within mounds of soft, starchy rice. I was worried the effect would be overpowering, but I think it was just right. If anything, in future I'd add a bit more of both the elephant variety and the garlic leaves.
I'm now hooked on the idea of wild garlic, and hope I find it again sometime soon. I'd love to try it in a pesto, simply tossed through hot strands of tagliatelle, and I have a few leaves left which I'm thinking of using to stuff or wrap around whole fish for baking. The rest of the elephant garlic I'm going to roast so its flavour mellows and I can spread it on bread to eat with some cheese. I like the simplicity of this risotto, though: a good way to showcase three exciting new twists on the humble garlic bulb.
Oh, and needless to say - this is not something to eat if you've any sort of romantic encounter planned for afterwards.
Baked mushrooms stuffed with triple-garlic risotto (serves 4):
12 large flat mushrooms
Salt and pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, very finely chopped
2 cloves smoked garlic, finely chopped
1 small glass white wine
A knob of butter
300g risotto rice
1 litre hot chicken or vegetable stock - keep it warm in a pan
About 10 leaves wild garlic, finely shredded
1 clove elephant garlic, very finely chopped (or use garlic-infused olive oil)
Parmesan for grating
Truffle oil for drizzling (optional)
First, bake the mushrooms. Spread on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season, throw over some thyme sprigs and bake at 180C for about 45 minutes until very soft and juicy. Add any juices to the stock as you make the risotto.
For the risotto, saute the onion and celery until softened, then add the smoked garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes, then add the butter and let it melt before adding the rice. Stir to coat in the butter and cook for a minute or so before pouring in the wine. Wait until it is completely absorbed, then add a couple of ladlefuls of hot stock. Stir the rice until all the stock is absorbed, then add another ladleful. Keep doing this until the rice is almost tender - keep tasting it. If you run out of stock, supplement with boiling water.
When nearly done, stir in the garlic leaves and elephant garlic (or drizzle in the garlic oil). Grate in some parmesan, and season to taste.
Remove the mushrooms from the oven, arrange on four plates, then spoon over the risotto. Drizzle with truffle oil - or more garlic oil - and grate over some more parmesan.