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Garlic
ARI LEVAUX, for Lee Montana Newspapers

As the Ides of April draw near, garlic lovers across the northern hemisphere find themselves facing a similar development. All garlic that's grown north of the equator will eventually get the call to sprout. From the Central Asian desert, where garlic is thought to have originated, to nearby Siberia, where once upon a time villagers paid their taxes in garlic, and all the way to the inland Northwest where the garlic spirits have more recently dug in, the garlic is growing.

Like the shared bond of financial bloodletting that American wage-earners endure at roughly the same time, the sprouting of the garlic signals a change in one's wealth status, regardless of the race, gender or socioeconomic status of the eater. In the same way that taxes take a bite out of one's net worth, the annual sprouting of the garlic is our cue that the garlic stash will soon be cashed.

This should matter to all eaters of garlic, and not just the growers and hoarders. Until further notice: if you purchase garlic, prepare to purchase sprouted garlic. The end before the beginning is in sight.

Garlic will begin to grow soft in the coming weeks, shriveling as the little plant diverts energy from the clove (which is a actually a leaf that’s been modified into a storage organ) and into the shoot forming in its core. Soon it will emerge from the tip.

Most cooks dig it out; a common reason given being that the green part adds bitterness. But that practice never sat well with me, in part because I consider sprouts, in general, to be delicacies in the purest sense of the word: the growing tip of a plant is often the most delicate part, in time and space. In many cases, such as bamboo, asparagus or ferns, the shoot form is the only part of the plant that is eaten.

It's springtime, after all, and sprouts are everywhere. Horsetails by the creek, weed sprouts in the garden. Spring greens are known to be full of vitamins and minerals; garlic sprouts should be too.

As the years have passed, it’s never much bothered me when the garlic sprouts. I chopped the green part with the rest of the clove and called it good. But when my wife detected a garlicky bitterness in a draft of the asparagus soufflé I'm working on for Mother's Day, I decided to revisit the issue. (She's the real taster in the family. I just write down what she says.)

I dismantled some big and beautiful heads of sprouting Romanian Red from last summer, and blanched them separately. In that clean and neutral context, without the distractions of seasonings, browning, burning, oil or anything else, it was easy to taste how the flavor varied from the tip to tail of the clove.

The bottom ends were bitter, including both sprout and clove. The white clove tasted like normal garlic, while the green sprout is delicious, mild, and not at all bitter — as I would have expected from a sprout.

Props to blogger Jill McKeever, one of the few to share my view on garlic sprouts. She writes, " ... the bite of garlic that hits your palate is unmistakably garlic but it doesn't hang long, compared to eating a fresh garlic clove that will stay with you for hours."

Ah yes, the Italian perfume. Like taxes, everyone seems to differ on how much garlic is too much. In the few days that I've spent researching this article, my wife hasn't let me in the bedroom. Garlic, as the haters know, doesn't just give you bad breath in your mouth, but in your whole body.

The taste and smell of garlic changes when you digest it, and at least six different sulfur-containing breakdown products are produced. One in particular, allyl methyl sulfide (AMS), passes from the gut into the bloodstream, from where it enters the lungs, which translates into the stank-breath. But the molecule is also found in pee, sweat, and who knows what other corners of the body.

Since the issue is emanating from body and belly, not the mouth, no amount of oral hygiene can stop the onslaught of AMS-rich bodily fluids, gases, and solids. Chewing gum or parsley can't hurt, but if breath freshness is a concern, don't worry about the garlic you just had for lunch. Worry about what you ate for dinner last night.

On the positive side, medical researchers believe some of those sulfur compounds, including AMS, are natural versions of "sulfa" antibiotics, which could help explain garlic's legend as a folk remedy to fight infection. As for that stank, just do what I do: drink so much coffee that's all anyone can smell. And make sure to have tolerant friends.

These measures are necessary for me, because I don't just love garlic. I love it head-to-toe, every bump and crevice, like Pablo Neruda loved his lovers. From the bulbous, dirty root scab to the bulbils of a mature scape.

Thanks to my latest round of research, I've come back around to what most cooks do when confronted by that green sprout staring up from the cutting board: slice open the clove and remove the sprout. I do it more carefully, because it's the sprout I want. And I want it intact. Except the scabby part, and above it. Thanks to my research I now trim higher off the bottom once the clove has sprouted.

This time of year, the white part of the garlic holds down the traditional responsibilities of garlic (as long is they are crispy enough to chop), while the mild green sprouts can be used in playful, beautiful and delicious ways, similar to how scapes can be prepared (Chinese-style with pork and oyster sauce, for example, or slowly browned in butter, on toast).

Alas, like death and taxes, the decline of garlic is inevitable this time of year. Especially if you identify with the shriveling white part, rather than the waxing green shoot, bursting with vigor.

But if you can shift gears and focus on the sprout, on the other hand, the party is only getting started. That sprout, those sprouts, are just getting going. Depending on how much sprouting garlic one has on hand, one can either prepare a tasty treat and be done with it, or put your sprouts in a place where they can grow.

The cloves can be planted in pots, or in the newly thawed garden. The planted cloves won't develop subterranean bulbs like they would have had you planted them last fall, but they will grow lots of spicy foliage that you can use when you're low on the white stuff. For the land-poor, McKeever suggests placing your sprouting cloves or bulb in a dish with a little water and setting it on a window sill.

As they grow, use your garlic sprouts like you would chives, scallions or other spicy sprouts. Chop and sprinkle the spicy, pungent greenery wherever you wish. You will notice it’s more substantial than the spicy hollow of green onion or chives. It is solid through the middle like asparagus, and can even be prepared as such, in long spears, in the pan or steamer. It’s a pleasure that not even your hard-earned tax dollars can buy.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."

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