Recipes that call for lots of garlic are always best when they're made with new-crop garlic, which has started showing up at farm stands and local farmers markets.
New-crop garlic's flavor is intense but sweeter and less harsh (especially when raw) than that of garlic available in late winter. I don't have scientific proof, but new-crop garlic doesn't seem to linger on the palate as much either, which is a fancy way of saying that it's less likely to give you bad garlic breath. Actually, what seems to be the biggest culprit in the bad-breath sweepstakes is the preminced garlic that comes in a jar. It's certainly convenient, but whenever I've eaten something made with preminced garlic, I've felt like the Pig Pen character in Peanuts, with a cloud of stale garlic odor hovering around me instead of dust and dirt.
Many recipes -- chicken with 40 garlic cloves and garlicky mayonnaise aioli, to name just two -- call for lots of garlic. One of the best is bagna cauda. A specialty of the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont, bagna cauda means "hot bath." It's especially appropriate for summer, not only because of the quantity of fresh garlic used but also because lovely seasonal young vegetables are dipped into it.
The ingredients for the traditional Italian bagna cauda are garlic, anchovies, and olive oil. Cream, milk, or both are included in most Italian-American recipes I've seen or tasted. I'm not sure why, but I suspect the reason cream became a component here in America is that in much of the country cream would have been a more readily available -- and less expensive -- ingredient than olive oil. That certainly would have been the case in the Midwest, especially in small towns such as Kincaid, where bagna cauda is featured at the annual garlic festival.
Regardless of the reason, I prefer versions that contain cream and milk, such as the one in the accompanying recipe. It makes the bagna cauda smoother and more mellow, a hot bath worth dipping into again and again.
Bagna cauda is most often served in the United States as an appetizer, but when a wide variety of fresh vegetables are used it can work as an entire meal. Though not traditional, cooked proteins such as shrimp or cubes of chicken are delicious when they've taken a hot bath, too.
If you love garlic but hate anchovies, you'll still probably enjoy bagna cauda. Garlic is the star of the party here; the anchovies just add tang and depth of flavor, as they do in Worcestershire sauce and the classic Caesar salad dressing. Salt anchovies' flavor is milder than that of oil-cured anchovies. The downside -- at least anywhere in the United States I've been outside of New York -- is that salt anchovies only come in a fairly large can. Once opened, though, the can's contents can be transferred to a nonreactive container and kept refrigerated indefinitely as long as they're covered with salt.
I stumbled across the method of preparing bagna cauda in a food processor by accident. It doesn't change the flavor, but it does make the sauce creamier and almost decadent.
1 1/2 cups whole milk
Six salt-cured anchovies or 12 oil-packed anchovy fillets (more or fewer to taste)
Two large heads of garlic (somewhere between 2/3 and 1 cup peeled cloves, the freshest you can find)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper (preferably white) and salt to taste
Some dipping possibilities: steamed asparagus spears, steamed or raw zucchini and summer squash, cherry tomatoes, pepper strips, cooked small new potatoes, celery, scallions, carrots, lightly steamed broccoli and cauliflower, cooked artichokes, and cardoons.
If you are using salt anchovies, rinse them under running water to remove as much salt as possible, then soak them in the milk for at least 30 minutes. Once they have soaked, peel the fillets from the backbones and remove the sharp gills. Discard the bones and gills. Strain the milk into a medium saucepan, preferably nonstick. Mince the anchovy fillets (oil-packed or salt-cured) and set them aside.
Separate the cloves of garlic and peel them. If your garlic is very young and fresh, you may not have to peel the cloves. Add the cloves to the milk in the saucepan and bring the pan to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, then add the minced anchovies and continue simmering until the milk has thickened and is barely coating the pan but has not completely evaporated.
Traditionally bagna cauda is completed by mashing the softened garlic and anchovies and then whisking in the remaining ingredients. For an alternative that produces a very smooth, light sauce, heat the olive oil, cream, and butter in a separate pan until the mixture is well warmed but not smoking hot. Scrape the garlic-anchovy mixture into a blender or food processor. Purée it for a couple of minutes until smooth and then, with the motor running, pour in the warm oil, cream, and butter mixture in a thin stream. It should emulsify into a consistency similar to that of mayonnaise. Adjust the seasoning -- you may or may not need to add salt. Transfer the bagna cauda to a small chafing dish or fondue pot. Serve immediately alongside a platter of the items to be dipped, keeping the bagna cauda warm. (If it's too hot, the oil will begin to separate, but the mixture will still taste great.) Leftover bagna cauda may be refrigerated, but reheat it as gently as possible to help prevent separation.
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