It just doesn't get any respect. Elephant garlic that is. These pachyderm-sized bulbs suffer from not a few stigmas, not the least of which is the off-whispered factoid among garlic aficionados..."It ain't even a garlic...it's a leek."
Linda and Fred Griffith, in their great book, Garlic, Garlic, Garlic (Houghton Mifflin, publishers) have a small section entitled. "The Controversial Elephant." They call it a "wimp garlic - contributing no real presence to a dish." But au contraire! We disagree. And we note the Griffiths themselves quote some distinguished food writers who heaped praise on the bulbous bulb, including the chef who commented "it roasts up sweet and nutty without the usual hard rawness." Yes! (PS, we agree with everything else in the Griffiths great book, however).
OK. We'll fess up. Elephant garlic is not allium sativum, but rather A. ampeloprasum, which does indeed make it a leek. The growing plant looks so much like a leek during spring and early summer you'd be excused for confusing them. But come harvest time, the bulging bulbs plucked from the earth are most certainly worthy of a place on your table. They firmly anchor the sweet, mild end of the garlic taste spectrum. And though it's hard to believe, some people actually prefer their garlic on the mild side. It's when they are roasted that the elephant can trumpet its glory the loudest.
But more on that later. How would you actually grow elephants or buffaloes, or rhinos, or whatever you want to call them?
First, a little history on our garlic growing here at Yucca Ridge Farm. We began growing elephants on the Colorado High Plains in 1993. We weren't sure what would happen, but our first small crop ranged in size between tennis balls and softballs, so any doubts about their productivity soon faded. Given that elephants are pretty rare around here (since the demise of the woolly mammoths anyway), we decided to market our bulbs to local natural food stores as "Buffalo" garlic (appealing also to fans of the University of Colorado Buffaloes). And as with all our garlic varieties, it is certified organic by the State of Colorado, "grown using only sun, soil, water and manure from cows we know personally", say our labels.
Since the debut of the Yucca Ridge Farm "buffalo garlic" we have been receiving calls from all the nation over asking for planting stock. And we are happy to serve as the "Johnny Appleseed" of elephants (buffaloes) through our web store, www.TheGarlicStore.com. In talking with gardeners around the nation, it turns out elephant garlic thrives in many locales. We hear of successful harvests from the maritime Pacific northwest to the cold midwest to the humid southeast and the rainy east coast.
What are the secrets of growing great elephant garlic? We'll be happy to share our approach which with minor variations should work well in most areas.
In Colorado we plant in late September, though you can probably delay into early December in the milder parts of the country. We plant at a depth of about four inches and 6-8 inches apart. The idea is to get some good root growth before the winter cold sets in. The real secret ingredients are mulch and water. The mulch (we use alfalfa, but wheat straw, grass clippings etc. will work) helps modulate the wild swings of soil temperature you can get during winter. It also helps in weed control come spring. Elephants, like all alliums, have a low tolerance for competing weeds (does anyone know a market for organic weeds? We are sure we can meet all demand!). And they need water. They just love water. During mild winters, you need to keep the soil reasonably moist. If winter dryness turns the topsoil to dust, that means trouble. And during the plant's active growth period from April through June, keep pouring the H2O on. As with other garlics, cut back on water in the several weeks before harvest. And they do enjoy nitrogen feedings during the spring. We also condition the soil with a lot of well aged manure. Bone meal seems to help, too.
A late spring field of elephants is an impressive sight, with their luxuriant blue green foliage. And come June, up go the scapes, ready to produce a beautiful purple flower characteristic of the allium family. But few of ours become so adorned because we cut the scapes just as pods form. We find that this does increase bulb size. Soon after, leafy growth ends, and bulb formation is in earnest. As the calendar slides into mid-July, thoughts of harvest run through your mind.
Here are some harvest tips. Don't let the plants get overly mature. It is important to harvest when most of the leaves are still green (perhaps 30 percent having turned partially brown). Waiting longer can result in the splitting of bulb wrappers. Leave the leaves on when you harvest (they are trimmed after curing). And once plucked from the ground, be sure to keep the bulbs out of strong sunshine as they can sun scald very easily. This turns the clove flesh a rather unattractive green color. Most bulbs have several very large cloves. We have had some bulbs weighing in at close to a pound. But quarter pounders taste just fine too. Occasionally you will find one that appears to be just a single clove, rather like a golf ball in size. The larger of these "rounds" actually provide excellent seed stock for next year's planting (and as always, when you replant, the bigger cloves grow into the bigger bulbs).
Elephants, like all garlic must be cured for several weeks in a well ventilated place. Packing moist, freshly harvested bulbs too tightly invites an outbreak of nasty fungus. When properly cured and stored, we find that they keep rather well, being perfectly edible well past Christmas, which is more than one can say for many hardnecks. The paper wrappers do tend to dry out, but the large individual cloves stay just fine.
We have found the elephant to be perfect for one of our favorite recipes: Garlic Chutney. The elephant is extremely easy to peel. So when the recipe calls for hundreds of pounds - that becomes a factor. Our garlic chutney recipe features a scrumptious mix of garlic, apples, red pepper, vinegar and sugar and is the perfect compliment for holiday roasts. And one local caterer uses the garlic chutney for his "secret recipe" chicken wings.
So, now for the eating. We think the elephant is the king of the roasters. And the roasted bulb hot out of the oven is much easier to eat than the California softnecks with its dozens of tiny cloves.
Some elephant garlic recipes from Yucca Ridge Farm