French, Italian and Spanish cooks have invented some really fine dishes featuring garlic. But it is the Spaniards who have been most creative in using it and who have found the most interesting ways of cooking and serving it.
Spanish cooks use garlic to perfume a dish in the initial stages of making it, or when it is almost ready for serving — and they sometimes use both methods in the same dish.
When garlic is used to start off a dish it is usually in the sofrito, which I wrote about last week. This is a mixture of onions, garlic, tomatoes and herbs, slowly sautéed over a low heat until it is reduced to a jam-like consistency.
This concoction is the basis of many soups, stews, casseroles and it is one of the reasons why so many dishes in Spanish regional cooking have such amazing flavours.
Basque cooks are especially adept at using garlic — and, what’s more, they are seen to use it. Their best-known method of giving a dish an extra garlicky punch is the ‘refrito de ajos’, a technique that is used just before a dish is served.
The ‘refrito’ is similar to another Spanish culinary trick called the ‘picada’, which also adds a final blast of flavour to a dish.
But the ‘refrito’ is completely different in that its garlic is cut into thin slices that remain very visible. The garlic in a ‘picada’ is pounded to a pulp that dissolves and disappears when stirred into a dish — although its flavour is very much upfront.
As the garlic slices in a refrito are meant to be seen, it is essential to use largest bulbs you can find. Small cloves of garlic are not at all suitable for a ‘refrito’.
The cloves must be taken from a firm head of garlic and must never be discoloured or blemished in any way.
Slice the cloves of garlic to the thickness of a two-centimo coin. Heat two centimetres of virgen extra olive oil in a smallish frying pan over a medium heat and sauté the garlic slices until they are of a nice golden colour.
Stir and turn over the garlic slices constantly because they soon reach the golden stage. At the last moment stir in flakes of red chilli to taste.
The garlic and chillis with some of the oil are best when poured over the dish just before serving it. A splash of wine vinegar is usually added after the oil has cooled down, although I prefer a refrito without a dash of vinegar. The vinegar must never be poured on to hot oil. It would splash vigorously, make a mess of the cooker, spatter our clothes and possibly burn our hands.
When sautéing sliced garlic for a ‘refrito’, or any other dish in which it is part of the garnish, the garlic must not colour too much.
If the garlic burns even slightly, you must throw it away and start again. Burnt garlic has an unpalatable taste and, like all burnt food, it is carcinogenic.
A ‘refrito’ is at its best when poured over fillets of bacalao (salt cod) or hake (merluza) that have been grilled on a hot plate or panfried.
It is also ideal for white fish that have been butterflied, such as gilt-head bream (dorada), sea bass (lubina) and slices of fresh cod (bacalao fresco), monkfish (rape) conger eel (congrio) or turbot (rodaballo).
When garlic is slowly and carefully sautéed until it is of a nice golden colour, its crispness adds a subtle contrast of texture to the fish as well as its distinctive taste. I like this crisp finish, which is why I never add vinegar to a refrito: it softens the slices of garlic.
The refrito is versatile and can be used on all kinds of dishes. I stir it into boiled pasta (another reason why I never add vinegar) and I always use more garlic and virgen extra olive oil.
I cook spaghetti, tagliatelle, linguine or any other long pasta, drain it in a colander, transfer it to a warmed bowl and pour on the refrito straight from the frying pan. Tossed with grated pecorino romano or grana padano cheese, it makes an easy starter that will delight pasta freaks, especially those who really appreciate the taste of garlic and virgen extra olive oil.
You should always get your garlic at supermarkets where you can buy it loose and help yourself. It is absolutely essential to choose only those heads of garlic that are firm to the touch.
The outer skins should also be fully taut. If they are at all loose and flaky don’t take them — the garlic will be past its best. Unless you use vast amounts of garlic, buy only a couple of heads at a time, because they quickly deteriorate and dry out, particularly during hot weather.
Buying the freshest and firmest garlic rally does make a difference to all dishes — and more so to a ‘refrito’ in which only the very best is good enough.
One of the most interesting ways of perfuming a dish with garlic is an invention of Basque restaurant cooks and not the housewives to whom every country owes its regional cooking.
This dish is called ‘bacalao al perfume de ajos confitados’, or salt cod with a confit of garlic. On most menus it is listed simply as ‘bacalao confitado’.
In Spanish culinary terms, ‘confit’ and ‘confitado’ mean that an item is cooked slowly so that it soaks up the flavours of the fat or oil it is cooked in.
So in this dish in which the ‘ajos confitados’ are used to flavour the salt cod, the peeled whole cloves of garlic are cooked very slowly in virgen extra olive oil to cover.
They need about 30-40 minutes, by which time they should be very soft, having absorbed the flavour of the olive oil.
But the heat under the frying pan must be extremely low so that the cloves of garlic simply poach in the oil. They must not fry or their texture and taste will change.
At the end of their time in the olive oil, the garlic cloves must be whole and very white.
After they have been taken from the oil and drained, they are put through a sieve and the pulp is stirred into homemade mayonnaise. There would be no point in doing this dish with mayonnaise from a jar.
This sauce is used to nap suprêmes of bacalao that have been desalted, coated with flour and fried in plenty of virgen extra olive oil so that they are golden on the outside and juicy within.
The bacalao suprêmes are served on a bed of sauce made with the cooked pulp of fresh tomatoes and nothing else.
Most restaurant cooks put the napped bacalao under a hot grill to brown the surface lightly, but this simply dries out the sauce and overcooks the bacalao…which is why I never order bacalao confitado unless I know there’s a very conscientious Basque cook in the kitchen who will do the dish properly.