It sounds terrible, because except for truffles and trumpet mushrooms, “black” normally means “burnt” in the kitchen. But black garlic, how could we not try it?
Six thorough minutes of internet research shows that it is whole-head garlic that is slowly fermented through the application of heat over time (so maybe there is something to edible black fungi–the aforementioned truffles and trumpets, huitlacoche, and now garlic). Most interestingly, it’s a new food, and not in the way the molecular gastronomists are finding applications for chemicals–black garlic has only been around since 2005.
A few hours’ experimentation in the kitchen yielded fascinating, albeit mixed, tastes and results. The garlic skin comes away in papery layers from the cloves, which are tender and jet-black throughout. They aren’t soft like roasted garlic, and can’t be pressed through a tamis; if they are to be spun in a blender, an addition of liquid is needed. They’re not quite firm enough to mince, because the garlic is extremely sticky and ends up caking the side of the knife.
On the palate, a slightly sweet attack is balanced by a pleasant amount of acid, a little funk, and a mild garlic finish. The sous chefs and I discussed it–the taste was nothing like we’d expected. There is a powerful but pleasant blend of sweet and sour, with the muskiness of dried mushrooms and something else that’s ineffable, in addition to the garlic flavor.
After a false start or three, I popped a cup of the peeled lack cloves in the blender with a cup of olive oil, a third of a cup of fresh lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. I spun it on low speed to break down the garlic, but not emulsify the vinaigrette–if that happened I was afraid I’d end up with gray rather than black. And gray is not a good color for food.
I turned the mixture out into a mixing bowl and added a quarter cup each of minced shallot and minced preserved lemon, along with a pinch of chopped thyme and marjoram. This black garlic and preserved lemon vinaigrette turned out to be quite good with a salad of fresh chickpeas, white wine poached artichokes, fried baby artichokes, sheep’s milk feta, and grilled bread, but the dish didn’t quite make the dinner menu: my thinking about the garlic still isn’t quite what it should be and where it will be. I can taste it in my head (sic) as a great partner with scallops and, their unique funk, or with sauteed corn, to highlight and contrast its sometimes overpowering sweetness.
Sometimes things take a while to get all the way up to Calistoga (Napa Valley may be a lot of things, but it’s nothing if not rural), and I’m sure we’re behind the curve of using this stuff The solbar mantra is “find the best ingredient, execute the appropriate technique, and apply the perfect seasoning,” which presents a good challenge in this case, since the “appropriate technique” isn’t obvious here like it is with a ripe tomato or a halibut fillet. Anyway, check in early and often to taste what we decided.