(Photo: Wendell Greer)
(Photo: Wendell Greer)
Despite the vagaries of the weather at the start of the season — too cold, too hot, too dry, too windy — crops are catching up, with a flood of squashes and cucumbers only slightly slowing as nights become cooler. Tomatoes hang red and plump, and the invincible garlic, now harvested and drying on our screened porch, seems none the worse for wear. In fact, it’s reassuringly normal. This year we seem to have harvested at just the right time: not one head had begin to split from its stalk. Garlic left too late will begin to pull away from its hard central stem and not store well, although we usually just set these heads aside and use them first. What’s apparent, as we survey the drying heads, is their uniformity. We often have some enormous heads, along with a smattering of very small ones, and plenty of middling size, but this year’s crop is all fairly large, with cloves that are satisfyingly gigantic. When it comes to cooking, having huge cloves is preferable, as it means much less peeling and the larger cloves can be split and laid flat side down for easier mincing, so I’d have to say that I’d choose larger cloves over larger heads.

We usually grow about 10 dozen heads of garlic, so we select around 25 of the biggest and best heads for next year’s seed, but this year the crop is so uniform that we could randomly choose any heads and they’d be fine for planting come October. Perhaps this means we’ve reached some kind of garlic stasis, where we will always have nice, large-cloved heads. As Hemingway said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Once the stalks of the plants are dried and the skins papery, we clip the stalks to about an inch in length and trim the roots to a half-inch. We toss the heads in mesh bags that formerly held corn and onions and hang them in the root cellar for long-term storage. But before they are hidden away, we go on a bit of a garlic binge, savoring the fresh, bright taste of garlic that’s juicy and never been bleached or treated, doubling up on the amounts we normally use and browning thin slices in oil to scatter atop assorted dishes for extra crunchy, garlicky flavor. Whether you grow your own garlic or buy it from a local farm stand, fresh garlic is sweet and never has the bitter taste of older garlic, so you should indulge while the season is upon us. One way to enjoy fresh garlic is to make up a jar of confit, which is a fancy word for garlic preserved in olive oil. With some garlic confit in your refrigerator you’ll have an instant source of pungent flavor ready to help you through the few remaining weeks of summer cooking. Here’s a recipe:

G A R L I C   C O N F I T

4 heads of garlic, cloves separated but left unpeeled
12 cup of mixed thyme and rosemary sprigs
112 cups olive oil
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Place garlic, herbs, and oil in an 8x8-inch baking dish, cover with foil and bake until garlic is tender, 60 to 75 minutes. Test by squeezing a clove: the garlic should be soft and tender. Transfer the garlic with a slotted spoon to a clean jar and pour the oil in to cover the cloves. Confit can be refrigerated for several weeks or frozen for several months.

Now comes the fun part, when you can just fish out a couple of cloves and mash them, along with some of their infused oil, with vinegar to make an instant vinaigrette. Or spread the cloves over toasted bread or crostini. For a quick hors d’oeuvre, garnish the garlic toasts with chopped fresh chives or other fresh herbs. Use the back of a fork to break down cloves into a paste and stir it into Greek yogurt or ricotta to make a creamy garlic dip or condiment. This past week I made oven-fried summer squash (slice ye llow squash, toss with olive oil in a bowl, then dip both sides of the slices into a mix of panko and grated Parmesan; place slices on baking sheets covered with parchment paper and bake in a 425-degree oven until brown and crispy) and served them as an appetizer with this garlic dip. It’s also great as a sauce when no one is thrilled to see green beans or zucchini on the menu again.