Peak season for garlic, “the perfect ingredient”

Midsummer is the peak of the garlic season all across the United States. Last weekend Gilroy, Calif. was epicenter of all things garlic as that small town 30 miles south of San Jose hosted the 35th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival.

The festival’s centerpiece attraction each year is the Great Garlic Cook-Off. Eight amateur chefs take to the stage to wow the judges with their original creations. First place winner goes home with a crown of garlic and a $5,000 cash prize.

Jamie Brown-Miller of Napa, Calif. says Gilroy is the Holy Grail in the world of amateur competitive chefs. It doesn’t hurt that garlic is a favorite flavor for so many people.

“Garlic is the perfect ingredient. It makes anything that much more flavorful and the flavors linger on your tongue. It can be a subtle undercurrent or right in your face. I love, love, love garlic,” she said.

Selected as a finalist but not a prize winner for a deconstructed Beef Wellington, Brown-Miller vowed to come back the next year with something “ridiculously unique.”

She decided to make garlic paper. “I did a lot of test runs, using rice flour and I can’t remember what else. I ended up with something resembling flatbread and I thought ‘this is boring.’ It wasn’t until I decided to reverse engineer meringue that I finally hit on the right process,” she said.

Her Stacked Steak Napoleon layered with garlic paper won first place in 2011.

Laureen Pittman, last year's first place winner, says she's "addicted to competition" and blogs about her obsession at "I've been in the Pillsbury Bake-Off twice, and a bunch of others, but Gilroy is the one everybody wants to win," she said. She'd entered several times before she landed on her award-winning combination of pork belly served with a sweet-and-sour sauce and polenta.

Her inspiration was a restaurant dish featuring pork belly and her challenge was to cook a complete dish in the two hours allotted for the contest. The light bulb moment was when she remembered her dad’s use of a pressure cooker and she found a way to quickly infuse garlic flavor into her pork belly and turn out her dish in the required time.

Margee Berry of White Salmon, Wash. has won all the top prizes at Gilroy. Grilled shrimp with lemon-anchovy-caper sauce won her third place in 2000 and poblano peppers with stuffed crab and goat cheese, served with a garlic sauce, won her second place in 2004. (Once you win one of the top three prizes, contest rules require you to sit out the next three years.)

Her first place winner, a watermelon soup with Southeast Asia flavors, was inspired by the cooking classes she takes when she and her husband make their annual visits to Thailand.

As much as she loves the competition, she also enjoys the festival for the community atmosphere. “Gilroy is a really laid-back and fun competition. Everyone is friendly and it’s such a big event for their community. There’s a fun party for the volunteers and we get to hear what people do in the garlic business,” she said.

Why Gilroy and why garlic? Dennis Harrigan, veterinarian and president of the 2013 festival, explained that Gilroy is in Santa Clara County and back in 1979 when the festival started, the county produced about 90% of the garlic grown in the United States. Rudy Melone, president of the local community college, approached Don Christopher of Christopher Ranch, the largest garlic shipper in the United States, with the idea of celebrating the local garlic harvest. Now Gilroy calls itself the “Garlic Capital of the World.”

Each year, the town doubles in size as more than 100,000 visitors arrive for the three-day event. The festival is a huge undertaking that involves more than 4,000 volunteers from the community. In return to giving up their town for three days every year, local non-profits have received $9.7 million in grants from the festival proceeds. This year’s festival will push that total to over $10 million.

Festival goers do more than watch the cooking competition. There’s garlic for sale – pickled, braided, loose and minced – and garlic to sample from scampi and pepper steak to garlic ice cream and garlic margaritas. A “Garlic Bowl” has local universities competing to win a scholarship for their institution and professional chefs compete in a garlic showdown, Iron Chef-style. And of course what festival would be complete without the crowning of a queen, in this case, Miss Gilroy Garlic?

Harrigan offers these tips for storing and using garlic:

Buy garlic heads with firm cloves and store them in a spot with good air circulation. They should keep for up to four months.

If purchasing fresh peeled garlic, refrigerate it in an air tight container. If garlic is stored in oil, it must be refrigerated.

The more you mash and mince garlic, the stronger the flavor.

Be careful not to overcook garlic. Once burned it will be bitter.

Fresh garlic is very pungent. To temper the flavor, roast garlic at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes, or simmer it in oil for 30 to 35 minutes. The result will be sweet, mild garlic and garlic-infused oil which should be refrigerated for storage.

Topper: Try some of these top prize-winning recipes from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 Gilroy Garlic Festival Great Garlic Cook-Off. This year's finalists include recipes for a butternut squash tart and garlic-basted leg of lamb. Check the festival website to see which recipe wowed the judges this year:

Warm Weather Watermelon Crabmeat Kissed South Seas Soup

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Serves: 6

This soup, the creation of Margee Berry of White Salmon, Wash., was the 2010 winner at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. The original recipe calls for blood orange juice which lends a beautiful color to the soup. If you can find blood oranges, by all means use them.

5 cups 3/4-inch cubes seedless watermelon (about 4 1/2 pounds watermelon flesh)

1 tablespoon pure olive oil

1/4 cup chopped shallots

2 teaspoons minced peeled ginger

2 teaspoons minced trimmed fresh lemongrass

1 teaspoon minced Thai or Serrano chili

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoons fish sauce

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 cups cooked lump crabmeat

1/4 cup finely chopped green onion

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

In the jar of a blender, puree watermelon in batches. Transfer puree to a large bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and add the shallots, ginger, lemongrass and chili. Saute, stirring frequently, 5 minutes, then add garlic and saute 1 minute more. Transfer to blender jar along with orange juice, vinegar, fish sauce and salt. Puree until smooth. Stir into watermelon mixture. Strain soup and discard solids. Chill soup at least for 1 hour.

In a medium bowl, combine crab, green onion, cilantro, mint and lime juice. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, ladle soup into bowls and top with crabmeat mixture. Serve soup at room temperature or chilled.

Per serving: 151 calories (percent of calories from fat, 22), 10 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 4 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 296 milligrams sodium.

Steak Napoleon on Garlic Paper

Hands on: 40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Serves: 6

This recipe is adapted from the 2011 winner created by Jamie Brown-Miller of Napa, Calif. The original included radicchio as an additional vegetable and topped the napoleons with crumbles of Stilton.

8 egg whites

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

12 cloves garlic, crushed, divided

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon stone ground mustard

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon hot sauce

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

36 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed

1 tablespoon truffle oil

36 asparagus tips

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil or a silicone baking sheet and spray with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar until the mixture forms stiff peaks. Fold in 8 crushed cloves of garlic and spread the mixture evenly on the foil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake 40 minutes or until light gold in color. Turn oven off, partially open door and let cool for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and break into 12 squares. Set aside.

While the garlic paper cooks, make marinade for steak. In a medium bowl, combine mustard, honey, hot sauce, remaining 4 crushed cloves of garlic and Worcestershire sauce. Toss the steak with the mixture and refrigerate until ready to cook.

When garlic paper is done and resting, cook vegetables. In a large skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat and stir in shiitakes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover pan. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning and stir in truffle oil. Keep warm.

While mushrooms are cooking, in a medium bowl, toss asparagus tips with lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and cook asparagus until just tender and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Keep warm.

When ready to serve, put one piece of garlic paper on each of six serving plates. Divide asparagus between serving plates.

In a large skillet, heat remaining tablespoon olive oil over high heat. Sear beef slices until browned on both sides, about 1 minute per side.

Layer half the beef slices over asparagus and top with a garlic paper square. Divide remaining beef slices between serving plates and top with mushrooms. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 556 calories (percent of calories from fat, 29), 38 grams protein, 68 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams fiber, 19 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 70 milligrams cholesterol, 211 milligrams sodium.

Crispy Pork with Fig Chutney and Creamy Polenta

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 5 hours, 30 minutes

Serves: 8

We’ve adapted this recipe from the 2012 top prize winner “Crispy Pork Belly with Caramelized Onion and Fig Agrodolce and Creamy Polenta” by Laureen Pittman of Riverside, Calif.

Pork belly is a favorite in restaurant kitchens but not so easy for the home cook to find. We’ve substituted a fresh ham steak and given it a similar treatment to the pork belly. Note this is fresh, uncured ham. It’s the cut from the back end of the ham, and not the smoked cured ham you serve at Easter.

You could also use Boston butt, or for a quicker version, substitute pork tenderloin, sliced into medallions and seared with garlic, then finished in a hot oven.

3 pounds boneless fresh ham steak

1 head garlic, cloves separated, unpeeled

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth, divided

1 cup whole milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cup polenta or coarse yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for searing pork

1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

7 ounces dried figs, tough stems removed, chopped

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup dry red wine

1/2 cup apple juice

1/2 cup honey

1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place ham in a small roasting pan. Add garlic and 4 cups broth. Note: add only enough broth to just cover the meat. Depending on the size of your pan, you may not need all 4 cups. If you need more liquid, add water. Cover pan tightly with foil and bake 4 hours or until meat is completely tender. Remove from oven and allow ham to cool in liquid 1 hour.

While ham is cooling, make polenta. In a large saucepan, combine remaining 2 cups broth, milk and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat slightly and add polenta or cornmeal in a thin stream, stirring constantly. When all polenta or cornmeal has been added, reduce heat to low and simmer polenta 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano and keep warm.

While polenta is cooking, making fig chutney. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and tender. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Stir in figs, vinegar, wine, apple juice, honey and rosemary and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thickened and syrupy, 30 minutes. Keep warm.

When ready to serve, remove pork from broth and set aside. Discard broth.

Heat a large skillet over high heat and film with olive oil. Divide pork into 8 portions and sear top and bottom of each portion.

While pork is browning, divide polenta between serving plates. Top with seared pork. Divide fig chutney between serving plates and serve immediately.

Per serving: 668 calories (percent of calories from fat, 38), 35 grams protein, 71 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 29 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 98 milligrams cholesterol, 582 milligrams sodium.