Sep 12 2005

Garlic Advisory

Buffalo chow mein

When the going gets tough, the spinster aunt makes orange-scented chow mein out of buffalo, with broccolini and crispy noodle cake

My embarrassingly huge collection of cookbooks has been packed away for the past 3 years in anticipation of my eventual permanent removal to El Rancho Deluxe, which removal keeps getting postponed because the house keeps not getting built. Thusly separated from my source material, lately I’ve taken to trying out recipes from Epicurious, the recipe website of Gourmet and Bon Appetit. They are usually lame, so I mangle them, naturally, according to the just prejudices of the Central Texan spinster aunt. For instance, I saved this “authentic Cantonese version of chow mein” from bland ignominy with the application of orange peel and Fresno chile. And, of course, buffalo steak.

But I digress. What I want is to complain about recipes that tell you to set a wok over high heat, add the oil, and chuck in some minced garlic. You don’t have to be Jean-Georges Vonge-fucking-richten to know that garlic thusly abused is going to do nothing but burn, burn, burn. Yet you see this all the time. I can’t understand it. So I come to you today to ask — nay, to beg — that you regard with deepest suspicion any author who gives this asinine instruction. Her tragic ignorance of the laws of chemistry makes it likely that she will have also omitted to include any species of chile, without which fruit few dinners are worth eating.


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  1. peacebug

    hey! chiles rock. here’s a most wonderful morsel for a hot afternoon:

    – slice your fav version of lovely, crisp apple into juicy wedges
    – squeeze juice of lime over all
    – sprinkle with cayenne or “any species of chile” that you favor …

    et voila, hot, sweet, and sour, all packaged in one perfect bite.

  2. Mandos

    I disagree with your garlic advisory. A large portion of Indian/Pakistani cooking involve sauteeing garlic and onion in oil at the beginning. I mean, real home cooking, not restaurant cooking. There’s even a whole verb for this. It does taste different if you add the garlic and onion afterwards: it’s *supposed* to burn a bit.

  3. Mandos

    Oh and ditto on the chiles. Even if they cause bowel inflammation.

  4. Twisty

    So Mandos, how do you keep the garlic from turning into little carbonized briquets?

  5. Mandos

    First of all, you use garlic paste. And you use enough of it (cooking in bulk is the South Asian way). So some of it will stick. And some of it will turn carbonized. If you are cooking it with onions, the burning is less rapid. You have to stand over it constantly in this phase though. But the key here is bulk–if you try to make a single meal’s worth, it might go too quickly. Proper Indian cooking is intended to serve a massive extended family, or a big party, or leave a lot of leftovers (that are usually almost as good as the original cooking).

    My mother likes daal (strangely for a descendent of South Indians I dislike lentils), and an essential component of *proper* daal-making is “bhagaarna” or, in English, “bhagartifying”. This involves minced garlic and onion and dried chilis and other spices in a frying pan in oil. In this case, the garlic *does* turn into carbonized briquets, because it’s *supposed* to do that. Then it is thrown on top of the already-cooke daal.

  6. Mandos

    Oh, and there’s a family of recipes that involves an onion garnish/condiment. The onion garnish is onion bits fried in oil or so long that they’ve turned black, but are still a bit chewy. It’s usually served with a minced raw ginger garnish and a raw green chili garnish, maybe also with lemon wedges. This holds, in particular, for recipes like haleem and nihari.

  7. Chris Clarke

    Grrr. [At epicurious of course, not at our host.]

    Broccoli is not a fricking substitute for choy sum. It might be an acceptable substitute for gai lon, depending on the recipe.


    I suspect my Cantonese in-laws might like bison chow mein with mild green chile just fine. But if they were cooking it themselves… OK, who am I kidding? If they were ordering it themselves, they’d order bison chow fun rather than chow mein, or bison on jellyfish, possibly garnished with duck tongues. And salt-crust rock cod on the side, and after that the serious eating would start.

  8. Twisty

    But why would anybody want to eat burnt garlic? It tastes awful! I mean, do you like burnt garlic?

    If so, I suppose we’ll have to agree to call it an acquired taste and leave it at that.

    My training is in the French style that has lately fallen out of fashion for being too snooty and too artery-clogging. In this style you coax the sugars out of the garlic with a long, slow, arduous sauté. The idea of burning it on purpose almost physically hurts me.

    Shiver me timbers!

    Chris, I feel ya on the choy sum.

  9. Emma Barnes

    I have to say that I have always been taught to add the onion first, so that it releases more of it’s sexy oil then you add the garlic, which is happily protected by the onion oil and everything slowly and lovingly goes all yummy.

    Burnt garlic is acrid and just plain weird. But then where I come from we deep fry caramel and nougat, chocolate bars, so what can I say?

  10. Emma

    Gak, I’m so on auto pilot I even put my last name in there. How crass.

  11. Chris Clarke

    I have to say that I have always been taught to add the onion first

    The “Official Secret To Authentic Mexican Cooking” as given to me by my friend and former boss Godofredo Huerta Flores (a.k.a. Beto), an excellent cook from Atlixco, on the slopes of Popocatepetl in the State of Puebla: “Always fry the pinche onions first, Coyote.”

    I think frying the garlic first is a misguided attempt by garlicophobes to minimize the bulb’s Frenchy impact on the palate. One can cure the affliction by feeding the cook-in-training whole cloves of roasted garlic, preferably just after they’ve been retrieved, skins still soaking, from the cool side of the Weber. After that, they’ll just add roasted garlic toward the end of cooking, in the same handful as the cilantro.

  12. Chris Clarke

    Dammit. “Smoking,” not “soaking.” What the hell have I been soaking?

  13. Kate

    Indeed. How many stirfries did I completely fuck up before I realised it was the cookbooks that were wrong?

    Now I’ve realised that true stirfries are hard to get right and I’ve stopped even trying. That’s what take-away is for! Take-out I mean.

  14. Pinko Punko

    I know they don’t mean for the garlic to burn but I think how they do it for real is it is in there for one nanosecond and then the rest of the stuff gets thrown in and they have this huge wok and most of the food is really flying in the air most of the time.

    Because every cookbook I have says “don’t let the garlic burn, for it will taste acrid” and then every recipe essentially causes the garlic to burn if you use the specified times. I made some penne with italian sausage and broccoli rabe last night and didn’t burn the garlic, but for the life of me I don’t know how.

    You would LOVE this one recipe for Vietnamese Sate- essentially fried garlic/chile peanut deal for meat skewers. You follow that recipe and you are eating pure charcoal. Asswipes. I hate them!

  15. Mandos

    See, you have to understand the whole context of the somewhat-burnt-garlic South Asian cooking, at least as I know it. These are mildly to very sour dishes that involve things like tamarind and mustard seed and all that. The permeating sickly-sweet acrid flavour of the garlic goes very well with it. Even some non-sour dishes aren’t hurt but a least a little garlic burning–and using garlic or garlic-ginger paste allows you to control the amount of garlic that actually gets burnt.. Remember, there are a heck of a lot of other spices in there.

    Sometimes it isn’t burnt garlic but garlic flakes. Garlic flakes have much the same effect as burnt garlic but milder. And charred onions have their own interesting effect.

  16. Twisty

    Mandos, I am speechless.

  17. Ripley

    I’m just hungry.

  18. Mandos

    Twisty: Speechless? Is it *that* unbelievable? It’s not all home Indian cooking that’s like this, btw. But almost all garlic, even if not burnt, goes in fairly early. It has to.

    By the way, I do in fact eat whole cloves of raw garlic, so Chris’ trick wouldn’t work on me.

  19. PrissyNot

    Use a garlic press – it turns out all the oils in the garlic and doesn’t burn in chunks. You just have to stand over it, never, never turn your back. And the olive oil should be MEDIUM hot, not high, so that the garlic has a chance to meld.

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