Eat Me: The Little Garlic That Could

Eat Me_postWhen I was growing up, my parents owned a women’s clothing store in Queens named “Nancy’s Shoppe,” after my mom. I assume the extra ‘pe’ on ‘shop’ was a fancifying effect. They sold bras and underwear, the unsexy kind – huge, industrial-strength bras that only came in black, white, and beige that were stacked in boxes behind the counter. The clothes were generally bedazzled sweatsuit sets, and wool pants with elastic waists. There was the occasional “fashionable” item, but their clients were the old Italian ladies in the neighborhood – so it was very occasional.

Their customers yelled at them, tried to return clothing that had clearly been worn for years, and sometimes pissed themselves in the dressing rooms. But my parents were thrilled to own their own business – they made their own hours and took time off during the summers. Besides, small businesses ran in the family. The house I grew up in was once my grandfather’s butcher shop.

Garlic from my dad's garden.Meanwhile, they built a house in Woodstock, NY together – my mom did the wiring, my dad the plumbing – and would take off days whenever they could to fix it up and start a vegetable garden on the surrounding land. My dad would come back to Queens with lettuce and give it as presents to my friends’ parents. One woman didn’t wash it well enough one night and served a salad full of tiny slugs to dinner guests. His favorite thing to grow, though, was garlic. He started with small amounts and started working his way up. Soon they were growing a few hundred pounds of garlic a year. Our house in Queens was filled with hanging dried garlic stalks, baskets of bulbs everywhere. They were reminders of this other life my parents had waiting for them, smelly signifiers of their split personalities: hippie Buddhists who dropped the f-bomb with abandon in thick outer-borough accents.

As you can imagine, family-run clothing stores did not do well as Queens became more upscale and malls and chain stores moved in. My parents, always hustling, left nearly 25 years of selling sequined cat shirts and costume jewelry and moved on to the next business – opening a Curves gym. They figured the clients would be about the same, and they liked the idea of helping women get healthy. It was only later they found out the company owners were radical right-wing Christian evangelists who donated money to extreme anti-choice organizations. My horrified parents started collecting money for Planned Parenthood in the gym. After a few years and a lot of money lost, they had close down their neighborhood Curves. This time, they found an opportunity they were cautiously excited about: a health food store in Sunnyside.

They sold vitamins, dried fruits and nuts, and – much to my parents’ delight – produce. Soon they were selling lettuce and cucumbers from “Phil’s Garden.” The baskets of garlic in our house moved to the store. And the constant cooked garlic smell that once permeated my living room was now there, as my mom cooked vegetarian meals in the back to sell at the counter. They still work hard – harder than I’d like – and customers can still be assholes, but now as 60-somethings they’ve settled into a profession that aligns with who they are.

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So in honor of my parents, doing something you love, and the ability to keep on keeping on, here are two of my favorite garlic-centered recipes (thanks, Mom):

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 3.05.36 PMBaked Goat Cheese with Garlic and Olive Oil

This is probably the easiest appetizer ever. It requires almost no work, very few ingredients, but tastes incredible and looks like you put a lot more effort into it then you really did. Put a layer of olive oil in a small rectangular or oval baking dish – salt and pepper generously. Put your goat cheese straight from the packet in the dish, surround it with peeled whole cloves of garlic – at least ten to fifteen of them. Stick a few on top of the cheese as well. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper. Bake it at 375 degrees for fifteen minutes, or until the top of the cheese gets browned and cracked. Serve immediately with crackers or sliced french bread. The best (read: only) way to eat this is to spread the still-warm cheese on a cracker with a whole clove. It will knock your socks off.

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Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

When I make this, I always go with the full pound of pasta. My husband Andrew thinks I’m nuts and have some sort of Italian gene that forces me to make 50% more pasta than necessary, but I really just like how it tastes as a leftover. Also, while I generally make it as a side – I have no problem just making it a main dish and eating an ungodly amount of the stuff.

So while you’re making the full pound of pasta, you maniac, heat up half a cup of olive oil in a skillet on low to medium heat. If you’re like me and have two different kinds of olive oil – the just-fine stuff and the good stuff – use the good stuff. Once it’s heated, throw a bit of salt and 4 large cloves of garlic (minced or sliced) in there. Mincing is easier, but I think slicing super thin pieces ends up tasting better. (No, you don’t need to Goodfellas it with a razor – a good paring knife will do just fine.) Shortly after put in a pinch or more – depending on your taste – of crushed red pepper.

Now, the garlic won’t take that long to brown, and you don’t want it to burn before the pasta is ready. So if you’re worried about timing, cook the pasta first and put it to the side while you’re cooking the garlic. Either way – before you drain the spaghetti, save some of the water the pasta cooked in – like 1/4 of a cup.

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 3.09.19 PMOnce the garlic is browned, throw in the cooked spaghetti to mix. Use your judgement and taste to determine how much of the reserved water you want to put in, if any at all. At this point, you can also throw some chopped parsley and lemon zest in there – I think the zest adds a little something something. Top with grated parmesan cheese and you’re good to go.

Jessica Valenti’s “Eat Me” appears every other Friday at 3pm. Past installments can be found here.

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