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Peak season for garlic, ‘the perfect ingredient’

By C.W. Cameron
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Midsummer is the peak of the garlic season all across the United States. Last month, Gilroy, Calif., was the epicenter of all things garlic as that small town 30 miles south of San Jose hosted the 35th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival.

The festival’s centerpiece attraction each year is the Great Garlic Cook-Off. Eight amateur chefs take to the stage to wow the judges with their original creations. First-place winner goes home with a crown of garlic and a $5,000 cash prize.

Jamie Brown-Miller of Napa, Calif., says Gilroy is the Holy Grail in the world of amateur competitive chefs. It doesn’t hurt that garlic is a favorite flavor for so many people.

“Garlic is the perfect ingredient. It makes anything that much more flavorful and the flavors linger on your tongue. It can be a subtle undercurrent or right in your face. I love, love, love garlic,” she said.

Selected as a finalist but not a prize winner for a deconstructed Beef Wellington, Brown-Miller vowed to come back the next year with something “ridiculously unique.” She decided to make garlic paper. “I did a lot of test runs, using rice flour and I can’t remember what else. I ended up with something resembling flatbread and I thought ‘this is boring.’ It wasn’t until I decided to reverse-engineer meringue that I finally hit on the right process,” she said.

Her Stacked Steak Napoleon layered with garlic paper won first place in 2011.

Laureen Pittman, last year’s first place winner, says she’s “addicted to competition” and blogs at “I’ve been in the Pillsbury Bake-Off twice, and a bunch of others, but Gilroy is the one everybody wants to win,” she said. She’d entered several times before she landed on her award-winning pork belly served with a sweet-and-sour sauce and polenta.

Her inspiration was a restaurant dish and her challenge was to cook a complete dish in the two hours allotted for the contest. The light bulb moment was when she remembered her dad’s use of a pressure cooker.

Margee Berry of White Salmon, Wash., has won all the top prizes at Gilroy. Grilled shrimp with lemon-anchovy-caper sauce won her third place in 2000 and poblano peppers with crab and goat cheese, served with a garlic sauce, won her second place in 2004. (Once you win one of the top prizes, contest rules require you to sit out the next three years.) Her 2010 first-place watermelon soup with Southeast Asia flavors was inspired by the cooking classes she takes when she and her husband make their annual visits to Thailand.

As much as she loves the competition, she also enjoys the festival for the community atmosphere. “Gilroy is a really laid-back and fun competition. Everyone is friendly and it’s such a big event for their community. There’s a fun party for the volunteers and we get to hear what people do in the garlic business,” she said.

Why Gilroy and why garlic? Dennis Harrigan, veterinarian and president of the 2013 festival, explained that Gilroy is in Santa Clara County and back in 1979 when the festival started, the county produced about 90 percent of the garlic grown in the United States. Rudy Melone, president of the local community college, approached Don Christopher of Christopher Ranch, the largest garlic shipper in the United States, with the idea of celebrating the local garlic harvest.

Now Gilroy calls itself the “Garlic Capital of the World.” Each year, the town doubles in size as more than 100,000 visitors arrive for the three-day event. In return to giving up their town for three days every year, local nonprofits have received more than $10 million in grants from the festival proceeds.

Festival goers do more than watch the competition. There’s garlic for sale — pickled, braided, loose and minced — and garlic to sample from scampi and pepper steak to garlic ice cream and garlic margaritas. A “Garlic Bowl” has local universities competing to win a scholarship, and professional chefs have a garlic showdown.

This year’s finalists included a butternut squash tart and garlic-basted leg of lamb. Read more at


5 cups ¾-inch cubes seedless watermelon (about 4½ lbs. flesh)

1 tbsp. pure olive oil

¼ cup chopped shallots

2 tsp. minced peeled ginger

2 tsp. minced trimmed fresh lemongrass

1 tsp. minced Thai or Serrano chili

1 tbsp. minced garlic

1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice

2 tsp. rice vinegar

1 tsp. fish sauce

½ tsp. sea salt

2 cups cooked lump crabmeat

¼ cup finely chopped green onion

3 tbsp. chopped cilantro

2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint

2 tsp. fresh lime juice

In a blender, puree watermelon in batches. Transfer puree to a large bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and add the shallots, ginger, lemongrass and chili. Saute, stirring frequently, 5 minutes, then add garlic and saute 1 minute more. Transfer to blender along with orange juice, vinegar, fish sauce and salt. Puree until smooth. Stir into watermelon mixture. Strain soup and discard solids. Chill soup at least for 1 hour.

In a medium bowl, combine crab, green onion, cilantro, mint and lime juice. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, ladle soup into bowls and top with crabmeat mixture. Serve soup at room temperature or chilled.

Makes 6 servings.

Notes: From Margee Berry of White Salmon, Wash. The original recipe calls for blood orange juice, which lends a beautiful color if you can find them.


3 lbs. boneless fresh ham steak

1 head garlic, cloves separated, unpeeled

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth, divided

1 cup whole milk

½ tsp. salt

1½ cup polenta or coarse yellow cornmeal

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for searing pork

1 large onion, chopped (about 1½ cups)

3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

7 oz. dried figs, tough stems removed, chopped

½ cup balsamic vinegar

½ cup dry red wine

½ cup apple juice

½ cup honey

1 tsp. fresh chopped rosemary

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place ham in a small roasting pan. Add garlic cloves and broth — only enough broth to just cover the meat. Depending on the size of your pan, you may not need all 4 cups. If you need more liquid, add water. Cover pan tightly with foil and bake 4 hours or until meat is completely tender. Remove from oven and allow ham to cool in liquid 1 hour.

While ham is cooling, make polenta. In a large saucepan, combine remaining 2 cups broth, milk and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat slightly and add polenta or cornmeal in a thin stream, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer polenta 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano and keep warm.

While polenta is cooking, make fig chutney. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden and tender. Add minced garlic and cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Stir in figs, vinegar, wine, apple juice, honey and rosemary and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thickened and syrupy, 30 minutes. Keep warm.

When ready to serve, remove pork from broth. Discard broth.

Heat a large skillet over high heat and film with olive oil. Divide pork into 8 portions and sear top and bottom of each portion.

While pork is browning, divide polenta between serving plates. Top with seared pork. Divide fig chutney between serving plates and serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings.

Notes: We adapted this recipe from the 2012 winner “Crispy Pork Belly with Caramelized Onion and Fig Agrodolce and Creamy Polenta” by Laureen Pittman of Riverside, Calif. Pork belly can be hard for the home cook to find. We’ve substituted a fresh ham steak (not cured) and given it a similar treatment. You could also use Boston butt, or for a quicker version, substitute pork tenderloin, sliced into medallions and seared with garlic, then finished in a hot oven.

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