Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Last weekend North Union Farmers Market put on a garlic festival, where I was lucky enough to judge a cooking contest pitting five local chefs against one another creating dishes that had to feature grilled grass-fed beef and garlic.  I was further fortunate to be seated next to Jonathon Sawyer, chef/owner with his wife Amelia (aka chefswidow), of The Greenhouse Tavern, arguably the best restaurant in Cleveland, certainly second to none (I only get prouder of the burgeoning restaurant scene here). Jonathon is so restless and inventive, he once ate the choke from an artichoke wondering if there was some way of puttin it to use (there wasn’t).  So here’s a guy who will strive for inventiveness and still have the balls to put pike quennelles, an old French warhorse, on his menu, knowing it will feel complete new—and they’re fabulous.  The kind of spirit than earned a much-deserved 10 Best award from Food & Wine last spring.

Jonathon Sawyer, on the right, and to my left, Joe Crea Plain Dealer food editor, judging food at the North Union Farmer's Market Garlic Festival

So Jonathon and I were chatting as we waited for the next garlic dish to arrive and he told me he’d caused a stir by claiming that Music garlic grown by Thaxton Farm in Hudson, OH, was the best garlic in the world, that he got shovelfuls of grief from other farmers say their garlic was best, or how can anyone say this or that garlic is the best in the world?!

It got me thinking: what exactly defines great garlic?  You obviously know it when you see it. You can see the above—it’s beautiful garlic, an example from Maplestar Farm in Auburn, Ohio, Music on the bottom, German Porcelain on top, $2 a piece and worth it). You know it when you work with it, if only by comparison to the almost uniformly crappy variety you get at the grocery store.

Good garlic is grown, and then cured, basically hung to dry, to preserve it.  The skin should be tight, the cloves solid and firm.  The best varieties have that hard core around which the cloves grow.  And yes, size matters.  The bigger the cloves the less peeling you have to do.  There’s also the matter of how hot it is when it’s raw, a matter of taste.  I like it hot so that I can control the heat by different levels of cooking. I love it finely, finely minced, then mixed with olive oil, spread on a slice of sourdough and toasted til the garlic is just golden brown.  I love to let it macerate in lemon juice before adding pepper and oil for a simple vinaigrette for romaine and shaved parmasan.  When you have garlic this good, it’s important to feature it.  Garlic sauteed quickly in olive oil, with just a seasoning of tomato and a hit of red pepper flakes, tossed with pasta. One of the best and most surprising uses on Saturday was smoked garlic that garnished grilled steak—really good, I highly recommend smoking garlic (warning though: hard to keep lit!).

But what really signals to me great garlic, is the sound I hear when I slice it, a sheer sound as the knife moves through it, which really is an indication of its juiciness.  The sound is what tells me its great garlic.  When you see garlic like this, grab it.  It can transform your cooking.

And I just heard back from Jonathon. He stands by claim: THE best in the world.