The old Italian saying "garlic is like 10 mothers" can be taken a number of ways. The smell of garlic roasting or sautéing has a familiarity and a robustness that can make one feel instantly at ease - and instantly hungry. Les Blank's documentary Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers is an amazing catalogue of eccentricity and hedonism, all relating to the history and consumption of garlic. When the film was released in 1980, Blank had a recipe for sensory reinforcement that he recommended to cinemas showing his film: he suggested slowly roasting garlic in hidden ovens during screenings. The full-length version of the aforementioned idiom goes: "Garlic is like 10 mothers … for keeping the girls away."
Like many mothers, garlic has a tendency to make its presence known. It leaves a lingering smell on the hands that I've found is not so unpleasant as it is tenacious. Still, it's a small price to pay for peeling your own.
Once a garlic clove has been peeled, its minutes are numbered, and don't let those flabby "roasted" garlic cloves at the salad bar trick you into thinking otherwise. You don't need a silicone magic roller for sloughing garlic skins. You don't need one of those ruinous little torture devices called a garlic press.
When choosing garlic, select heads that are firm, with tight clusters of plump cloves. Avoid ones that feel withered or springy in their papery husks - they're no more edible than origami. If there are powdery-looking dark spots of mould lurking beneath the skins, you don't want it. And don't refrigerate it. Just store it in a cool, dry place. Winter garlic is perfectly usable; just cut out the little green germ that's sprouted within; it burns quickly, it's bitter and it's the cause of indigestion some complain of when eating a dish heavy in garlic. Besides, it reveals the garlic's age, which is always a little rude.
Peeling garlic cloves may be tedious, but please resist the urge to buy jars of peeled ones, and especially garlic that's already been minced or mashed to a paste. This is mystery, ageless garlic, pumped with preservatives and stabilisers, and then packed in dubious oil for indeterminate lengths of time. If you're hopelessly hooked on having garlic ready to use in a snap, make garlic confit or mojo de ajo, which are two slightly different versions of the most useful condiment you will ever know. There are concerns that garlic stored this way is a breeding ground for botulism, but danger and delight are frequent companions. Make it anyway, but throw it out after a week.
For an ingredient that many use daily, and one that's hardly subtle, it's worth the extra three minutes it takes to seek out and prepare fresh garlic. It's a routine for which there are no shortcuts or substitutes, and a reminder of how rewarding that can be.