Chow Town

Diners explore history, taste of heirloom garlic

Heirloom garlic
Heirloom garlic Special to The Kansas City Star

This past week, I hosted a unique Heirloom Garlic Experience at Jasper’s restaurant with my friend and local Kansas rancher Gary Verhaeghe.

I met Gary over 10 years ago while planning an heirloom garlic and honey workshop for our local Slow Food Chapter at his Coffee Creek Ranch.

Just like the other heirloom fruits, herbs, flowers and vegetables, heirloom garlic bulbs have been passed down for generations.

Garlic is one of the oldest crops known to mankind dating back more than 5,000 years ago. Garlic is mentioned in the Bible and clay models were found in Egyptian tombs that actually held the keepsake garlic.

Roman soldiers were fed garlic to make them courageous while Egyptians used garlic to embalm the dead.

Garlic was not popular at all when America was discovered. It was rarely used in cooking by the colonist and really was introduced by the Spanish in the Southwest. Bathing was not something that was done every day and the odor of garlic sometimes took over the human body so it is easy to see why it was disliked.

Of all the alliums grown today, American gardeners are craziest for garlic not only for the proven medicinal benefits but also for cooking.

Garlic is a member of the lily family and there are more than 300 garlic varietals, the purple Italian being one of most widely planted.

Today, Americans consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic each year. The most popular of the heirloom garlic variety is the German Red, which can grow 5 to 6 feet and will contain 10 to 15 cloves in a duster.

Most people call a piece of garlic a “clove” but actually it is a “tow.” It is also the most abused ingredient in Italian cooking. Nothing is worse than burning garlic in a sauce or overpowering a dish with too much garlic. Another problem is the type of garlic that is used in most restaurants is from China and is mass grown for availability.

Gary started off the dinner with a brief history of garlic and how garlic became part of his family. Gary’s family has been growing garlic in Johnson County since the early 1900s, when a Belgian immigrant named Alfons Verhaeghe began farming in the county.

Today, Gary grows more than 15 types of heirloom garlic and has named his heirloom garlic Aime. At the dinner, he encouraged local farmers and gardeners to grow this heirloom garlic. Several bulbs were given out to local gardeners attending and Gary took their names and phone numbers so he can follow up next year and review the results of their planting.

Our garlic dinner consisted of many courses in which garlic was used, including my father’s signature dish, Scampi alla Livornese. This was served with a famous bread I learned to prepare in Sicily this past spring, Pane Gunzatu.

Every month, we marinate Italian olives with garlic, celery, onions and fresh herbs so this was also on the table when the guests arrived. A very simple but flavorful local roasted garlic and mushroom soup en cappuccino was also served as a starter followed by a flavorful pasta with roasted garlic and cauliflower and finished with toasted Italian breadcrumbs.

Gary had also given me some of his local honey produced on the ranch so I incorporated it with balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil for a simple salad with wild greens and local blue cheese. I could not help but remember my friend and cookbook author, Marcella Hazen, and her love for garlic so I served her famous recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic paired with some of my wife Lisa’s scalloped potatoes with a hint of garlic and dusted with Parmigiano cheese.

Believe me, nothing was too overpowering and no one complained of garlic overload. The heirloom garlic is very mild yet so flavorful.

During the heirloom garlic experience, Gary shared his passion and knowledge about garlic. Gary had poster board set up with pictures of the many varieties of garlic that he grows along with historical charts in many books and papers written on the subject.

He explained to the sold-out audience there are two types of garlic, longneck and softneck, that produce bulbs with many small cloves and usually planted in the fall. Gary brought several samples of heirloom garlic along with planting directions. Each bulb was labeled in small type with the name attached.

This is not Gary’s job or a means of income but rather his passion. The bulbs are something he wants to pass down to his grandchildren in the hopes that someday they will do the same, remembering their grandfather, carrying on the legacy and keeping the heirloom garlic alive.

There is no doubt that Gary is a great steward of the land, encouraging local gardeners and farmers to plant heirloom garlic so future generations can enjoy it.

For more information and heirloom garlic bulbs to plant yourself, visit Seed Savers Exchange website.

Jasper Mirabile’s Heirloom Garlic, Cauliflower & Pasta

1 pound cooked shell pasta

1 cauliflower head

8 cloves heirloom garlic

1/2 teaspoon red chili peppers

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons parsley minced

Sea salt to taste

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup toasted breadcrumbs

Cut cauliflower, discard leaves and cut into pieces and use all parts. Mince garlic. Boil cauliflower until soft. Drain.

In a saute pan, heat olive oil on medium high. Add garlic. Saute, being careful not to burn. Add cooked cauliflower. Toss. Add salt and red pepper to taste. Add pasta, parsley, broth and butter. Toss again. Finish with butter. Top with breadcrumbs. Serve immediately.

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells a line of dressings and sauces.