Q&A, Random Thoughts, Soup

and the winner is…

For those of you who followed the Essential Vegetable Tournament, we have a winner! Here’s a question, before I tell you which food David Logue’s friends and colleagues dubbed most essential. Which do you consider more important – tomatoes or garlic? And why?

As a cook, I can’t imagine a world without garlic. Not that I’d want to live without tomatoes – pasta sauce, pizza, braised beef, and all kinds of Latin American dishes wouldn’t be the same, and some things – sauce espagnole and sauce americaine, tomato salad – would become a memory. But I’d manage. More than half the pasta sauces we eat right now are sans tomato – either just olive oil, or egg, cream, or butter-based sauces, and there’s always pizza bianco. Asian braised beef dishes almost never include tomato, and neither do many enchiladas, moles, and Latin American stews. Everything would be all right.

Not so if garlic became extinct. For the record, I’m not one of those “more is better” people when it comes to garlic. Except in the rare cases where garlic is the star, you shouldn’t specifically taste it. It’s an underpinning – savory, aromatic, barely sweet; sometimes nutty and mellow, and sometimes sharp and hot. But it’s an essential one. Without it, there’s nothing to counter the acidity of tomatoes, the heat of chiles, the blandness of meat, the bitterness of kale. Garlic plays a role in most savory dishes, in virtually every cuisine. So my vote goes to garlic.

So it should come as no surprise to you that TOMATOES beat garlic, 21-11, after barely edging out wheat in the final four. Tomato partisans defended their choice of the sun-ripened fruit – “give me a plate of plain toms (even sans their normal wheat-based accompaniments) to munch over a pile of garlic,” said one. Another pleaded the case for tomato’s nutritive value, arguing that while the flavor of garlic “is unsurpassed, [it] lack[s] the wholesome nutrition and substance of a tomato.” I asked David Logue for his thoughts on this underdog win, and final impressions about the tournament:

Q: Tomatoes beat garlic 21-11. That’s a pretty steep margin of victory. Were you surprised? How would you have voted, had you needed to break a tie?

A: I thought garlic would win. I would have voted for garlic over tomatoes. I also would have voted for garlic over onions. I don’t have anything against onions; I really would miss Indian food and onion rings, but I would get by. [Indeed, one voter who selected garlic observed that “garlic is the basis for many flavors of widely varying origins, whether one can taste it or not. Without garlic, the world would be a sad, bleak, and bland place.”]

Q: You said before the final that you tried to keep the matchups interesting. And in the end – as you said – two pillars of Italian cuisine went head to head. Rice and green onions went out in the first round, basil eliminated cilantro, peanuts stomped soy. Do you think this is telling – that Italian cuisine is, after all, our collective favorite?

A: The voters love Italian and so do I. I’m not sure how representative we are of the general public. About half of the voters are from the Bay Area or San Diego. Either way, they’re used to large Italian immigrant communities and an abundance of California Cuisine restaurants (which are basically Italian restaurants).

Q: Final thoughts on the tournament? Did you cut down a net and drape it around a basket of tomatoes when you tallied the final score?

A: Garlic would have been a great champ. Tomato is kind of cool… better than wheat. I was all set to email the bracket to the Garlic Growers … see if I could get them to use to advertise the Gilroy Garlic festival.

And there you have it. I can’t make up for the loss to tomatoes, but I can post a tribute to garlic – a garlic soup recipe that showcases the sweet, nutty qualities of the bulb.

Here’s the deal with the garlic soup. There’s a restaurant up in Vermont that makes a delicious cream of garlic soup. It’s creamy and mild and when we dine at that restaurant, my husband always has a bowl as a first course. The chef is proud of this soup and refuses to share the recipe. I think it’s weak to refuse to share – 90% of a recipe is in the execution, after all, and anyway, cooking is about sharing with others.

But whatever. I figured it was just a matter of time before I worked it out. The first time I tried replicating this garlic soup, I thickened it with bread, like the classic sopas de ajo, garlic soups from Spain and Portugal. It was delicious, but the texture was wrong. The second time, I tried an egg and cream liaison. Too rich. The third time was the charm.

Garlic soup

1 1/4 cups garlic confit
1 large onion, diced 1/4″
2 c beef stock, plus extra (up to 1 cup)
2 bay leaves
4 branches thyme
1/2 c cream
2 c whole milk

Place a sauce pot over medium heat and add the butter. When melted and bubbling, add the onion. Sauté the onion until fully tender and just beginning to turn golden at the edges. Add the garlic confit and the beef stock; add the bay leaves and thyme branches. Simmer 20 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves and all the thyme branches and transfer to the Vitaprep (or any other heavy duty blender). Purée until thick and completely smooth. Transfer back to a clean sauce pot. Bring back to a simmer; add the cream and simmer 2 minutes; add the milk and bring back to a simmer. If the soup is too thick, thin it with beef stock. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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