Oven On? Garlic In: Don’t miss a chance to roast a head

I don’t hate summer, but gosh darn it if I don’t look forward to the cool, dark evenings of fall. One of my favorite things about the season is being able to crank up the oven and roast anything and everything. Roasted chicken is my go-to, no-fail dinner. Simple and homey, chicken rubbed with butter, salt and pepper and stuffed with a lemon and some garlic cloves fills the house with the aroma of cozy. The dry heat of roasting also makes most autumn and winter vegetables sweeter, richer and comforting. No matter what’s roasting, I always throw in some garlic. Because garlic is magic. If I’m cooking a recipe that does not call for garlic, I usually add some anyway (except for desserts, of course) and never regret it. Also, garlic is a major flavor component in the foods of most cultures: Indian, Thai, French, Italian, Chinese, American, Mexican. Basically, everybody loves garlic. I love it so much, in fact, that I have a head of garlic tattooed on my arm. Raw garlic is sharp and pungent and can burn your sinuses and make your eyes water (in a good way). When you roast it, garlic turns downright sweet, mild and nutty. It is so easy to cause this alluring transformation – with butter, olive oil, stock or water, or nothing but the garlic. You don’t even need to heat up the kitchen by turning the oven on, as it is indeed possible to roast garlic in a pan on the stovetop. There are even specialty garlic roasting vessels available for sale. My favorite way to roast garlic is to remove the excess skin from a whole head, cut off the very top, nestle it into a square of foil, set into a muffin pan or on a cookie sheet or casserole dish, sprinkle it with a tablespoon of olive oil, a pinch of salt, a couple of twists of the pepper grinder, close up the foil, and roast at 400 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes. The result is sticky brown nuggets of pure delight that can be squeezed right out of the skin. (You will have sticky, garlicky fingers, as well.) Now you’ve got one of the best things to spread on a toasted slice of good bread. That is the awesome thing about roasted garlic – it is simply fantastic all by itself. Roasted garlic is also wonderful incorporated into recipes. To fancy up the spreadability, combine it with ricotta cheese and pine nuts for a rich and nutty bread-topper. (See accompanying recipe.) Or to max-out the comfort factor, try my Roasted Garlic Soup. Four whole heads may seem like a lot for two large bowlfuls, but the roasting mellows and sweetens the garlic flavor. A good stock is important here, so I never throw away the leftover bones and pieces when I roast a chicken. The cream added at the end makes the hearty soup almost over-the-top full-bodied. This is a dinner soup – you won’t need anything else to keep you warm and satisfied on a cold night (though some crusty bread is never a bad idea). So don’t ever hesitate to throw some garlic into the oven. I will be doing so all fall and winter long. Stephanie Tolle is a graphic designer living in North County with an obsession for all things food. She blogs as Iron Stef at chairmanstef.blogspot.com.