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By Tony Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; Page F01

The smashed clove of garlic was airborne out of the saute pan and sailing toward the floor. At this halfway point in the preparation, the garlic had already served its purpose, infusing a generous film of olive oil with a deep, nutty flavor.

During my six-month apprenticeship four years ago at a bustling Roman restaurant, I could see that a few flicks of garlic marked most every preparation at the pasta station across from me. And the pasta cook's penchant for throwing garlic onto the floor, instead of in a trash can, only punctuated this point with a flourish.

Smashing Uses

In all of these preparations, smashed garlic cloves are remarkably flexible, absorbing high heat and in turn giving off subtle but substantial flavor.

In roasts: Marinate a whole bird overnight with a handful of the smashed cloves, some lemon zest, rosemary sprigs and good olive oil. Set the chicken along with its marinade flavorings over a bed of potato and onion wedges and roast until browned and cooked through. The chicken will have a wonderful garlicky perfume while the cloves will become golden and spreadable.

In stews: Start the base by gently browning the smashed cloves in oil or butter and then sweat them with larger aromatic vegetables such as onions, carrots and celery.

Quick meals: Speed up a chicken braise by using breast meat along with the smashed garlic. Steep the cloves in oil and butter, then brown the chicken pieces as well as a medley of mushrooms. Chicken broth and cream pull the dish together and give the dish a rich, slow-cooked feel.

Stir-fries: Add the smashed garlic along with other aromatics like shallots or thinly sliced ginger and sauté until the vegetables brown. Add some broth or a flavorful liquid, cover and cook for a few more minutes until the vegetables are crisp-tender.

-- Tony Rosenfeld

It's easy enough to learn how to cook with smashed garlic at home, especially if you abstain from the clove-tossing. Lightly crushing the cloves accomplishes the tall task of smoothing out garlic's temperamental nature. In its customary minced or chopped form, garlic can impart a pungent flavor that is difficult to harness. Add it too early to a sauté or stew and garlic burns and becomes acrid. Add it in the latter stages of cooking and the garlic steams or boils, leaving it raw-tasting and unpleasant.

This is where thinking big helps find garlic's softer, more subtle side. Left whole and partially smashed (just enough to release its powerful oils), garlic adapts to a range of high-heat techniques, cooking steadily and lending a mellow richness to a dish. Follow the lead of my former Italian colleagues and brown the garlic in oil as a base for an intense pasta sauce. Or try the smashed cloves in stews and braises, in roasts and marinades or in stir-fries.

Smashing garlic cloves is almost therapeutic after a long day. Accurately stated, the technique is more of a restrained flattening than an all-out smashing. The best tool for smashing is a chef's knife, which has a triangular blade that ranges in length from six to 12 inches. Set the side of a chef's knife on top of an unpeeled clove of garlic. Place the heel of your hand on the flat side of the knife and apply enough pressure so that the clove splinters but does not completely break up. The skin should separate easily, and the clove should remain in one flattened, slightly bruised piece. The garlic is now ready for cooking.

Since a smashed clove has a smaller surface area than a clove that's been minced and is many sided, smashed cloves are a good deal more mild than their chopped or minced counterparts and may be used accordingly. For a pasta sauce, heat a handful of cloves with a generous drizzle of olive oil over moderate heat until they begin to brown and bleed their nutty flavor into the oil. Add some chopped rosemary and crushed red pepper flakes to the garlic oil for a version of the Italian classic spaghetti all' aglio, olio, e peperoncino. You can also let this oil cool and serve as a dipping sauce for bread or turn up the heat and sauté some wild mushrooms or tomatoes for a robust sauce.

As you begin to cook with the smashed garlic, the question inevitably arises: to discard or not to discard the cloves? Unlike my Italian friends, I generally like to leave the cloves in pasta sauces until the last possible moment to extract the maximum flavor. Just before serving, I will fish out the cloves; or if the dish is rustic and I'm feeling lazy, I will leave the garlic in and warn guests.

Spaghetti With Garlic, Oil and Hot Chili Peppers

4 to 6 servings

This simple, classic recipe is the kind of preparation Italians make when they are hungry and in a hurry. Though it only has a few prominent ingredients -- garlic, hot pepper flakes, rosemary and parsley -- this pasta warms and comforts on a weeknight.

1 pound dried spaghetti

5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

Heaping 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, plus additional for sprinkling

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan over medium heat, heat the garlic and oil until the garlic begins to sizzle, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the garlic browns in places and the oil becomes very fragrant, about 4 more minutes. Add the rosemary and red pepper flakes and remove from the heat. If desired, remove and discard the garlic cloves. Set aside.

Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water and drain the pasta. Return the pan with the garlic oil to medium heat, add the drained pasta, 1/4 cup of the pasta water and the parsley and toss well to coat every strand of pasta, about 1 minute. Add the remaining pasta water if the pasta appears a little dry. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste and serve with a sprinkling of the cheese and parsley.

Per serving: 469 calories, 12 gm protein, 58 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 147 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Chicken Braised With Garlic, Mushrooms and Thyme

4 servings

This quick braised dish is cloaked in a garlic-infused sauce of cream, mushrooms, thyme and vinegar. Make sure to remove the garlic cloves from the sauce before serving since their shape is easily confused with the chicken.

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed

1 tablespoon butter

8 ounces mushrooms (mixture of shiitake, oyster and cremini mushrooms), stemmed if necessary and cut into 1/4-inch slices

2/3 cup chicken broth

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, plus additional for sprinkling

2 tablespoons heavy cream

2 tablespoons sherry or balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper sauce, such as Tabasco

Rinse the chicken and pat it dry. Cut it into 1 1/2-inch-pieces and season with salt and a few generous grinds of black pepper. Place the flour on a large plate, dredge the chicken to coat lightly and shake to remove any excess flour. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil and garlic until the garlic begins to sizzle and become fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the butter and heat until melted.

Add the chicken and cook, without turning, until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Turn and repeat. (The chicken will not be cooked through.) Add the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, until they start to soften and brown in places, about 3 minutes. Add the broth and thyme, bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer the chicken gently until it is firm to the touch and cooked through (check by slicing into one of the thicker pieces) and the mushrooms are tender, about 4 minutes.

Stir in the cream, vinegar and hot pepper sauce and heat for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper and a sprinkle of thyme. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 387 calories, 32 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 83 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 173 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Stir-Fried Broccoli in a Spicy Black Bean Sauce

4 to 6 servings

The garlic flavor comes through despite the rich, distinctive flavor of fermented black beans.

3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1/4 cup water

1 pound broccoli crowns, cut into medium-size florets

5 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed

1 1/2-inch piece ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced

8 Thai (red) hot chili peppers, whole (may substitute jalapeno chili peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into 5 or 6 long strips)

1 1/2 tablespoons fermented black beans*, coarsely chopped

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon of oil, the soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and water. Set aside.

In a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola or peanut oil until it's shimmering hot, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the broccoli, garlic, ginger and chili peppers. Cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Add the black beans and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the broccoli browns in places and softens slightly, about 4 minutes.

Whisk the soy mixture to recombine, then add to the skillet, cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the broccoli is crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately. (You may wish to remove and discard or warn guests of the whole chili peppers.)

NOTE: Fermented black beans are available at Asian grocery and some health food stores.

Per serving (based on 6, excluding fermented black beans): 120 calories, 4 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 175 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Tony Rosenfeld is a contributing editor to Fine Cooking magazine.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company