Saturday, June 16, 2012


Garlic = flavor.
Between the olive trees on my terraced hillside are four small garden plots where I grow vegetables year-round —tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in the summer; broccoli, kale and chard in the winter; peas, favas and lettuce in the spring. But one plot yields, not exactly “food,” but flavor. That’s what I’m harvesting this month—flavor—garlic. Enough garlic to flavor my cooking for many months to come.

New harvest garlic.
Spain is one of the world’s biggest producers of garlic. And, the place that claims the title of Spain’s “capital of garlic” is Las Pedroñeras, a village southeast of Madrid, smack in the middle of Don Quixote country. A single growers’ cooperative in the town produces some 20,000 tons of the flavorful bulb in a year.

Most of it is the esteemed ajo morado, purple garlic, a variety of hard-necked garlic that has papery white layers enclosing cloves shrink-wrapped in violet skins. Purple garlic is both sweet and pungent, with a powerful bite. The purple garlic of Las Pedroñeras enjoys its own protected denomination of origin.

Surprisingly, the village doesn’t reek, even at the height of the summer garlic harvest, when bundles of garlic with their straw tops still attached are heaped in fields to dry. Not until some of those cloves of garlic are bounced into a pan of olive oil do they release that special smell.

A basket of garlic bulbs.
Garlic goes into all sorts of Spanish dishes—gazpacho, sofrito, soup, both hot (sopa de ajo) and cold (ajo blanco), sauces (notably alioli, garlic mayonnaise); stews, sautés, salads and more.

To celebrate my harvest, I decided to prepare pollo al ajillo, chicken sautéed with “a little garlic.” Which is tongue-in-cheek for “lots and lots of garlic.”

Pollo al ajillo--chicken sautéed in cazuela with whole garlic cloves.

Chicken Sauté with Garlic and Sherry
Pollo al Ajillo

This is a favorite dish in tapa bars. For tapas, the chicken is cut up into small pieces. I prefer to substitute wing joints, to avoid the bone splinters of hacked chicken. For a main course, I use a cut-up fryer—legs, thighs and breasts—preferably free range. Larger pieces need a longer cooking time than wings. Make this dish also with rabbit.

Whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic are sautéed with the chicken. The skins keep the garlic from scorching and becoming bitter. Serve the garlic with the chicken; guests can decide for themselves whether to partake of the sweet nuggets or push them to the side of the plate.

While dry fino Sherry, manzanilla or Montilla-Moriles is the traditional cooking medium for this dish, I must say that a medium Sherry such as amontillado or palo cortado adds so much mellow flavor.

Serve the chicken with chunks of bread for soaking up the garlicky juices.

Wings serve 12 as a tapa; cut-up chicken serves 6 as a main course.

A tapa dish of chicken wings.
2 pounds wings or cut-up chicken
Salt and pepper
1-2 heads garlic (10-20 cloves)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
Sprig of thyme
½  cup dry or medium-dry Sherry
¼ cup water or chicken stock
Chopped parsley

If using wings, cut off the wing tips and discard (or save for stock). Divide each wing into two joints. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and allow to set 10 minutes.

Lightly smash the garlic cloves to split the skins.

Heat the oil in a cazuela or deep skillet. Add the chicken pieces to the oil and fry them slowly, turning to brown all sides. Add the unpeeled cloves of garlic.

When chicken is browned (15 to 20 minutes), add the bay leaf, Sherry and water or chicken stock. Continue cooking until most of the liquid is cooked away and chicken is tender. Serve immediately garnished with chopped parsley.

Pollo al ajillo--chicken with garlic.


  1. So easy ! I don´t even have to peel the garlics....Why don´t I make it more often..?.I´d make it with rice......No ?
    Maybe recommend what to make with it ?

    1. Charlotte: Pollo al ajillo is good with rice. As a tapa, it's typically served with a few patatas fritas--fries.

  2. You can still get Spaniards laughing (with pride) at Victoria Beckham's comment that, "España huele a ajo" (Spain smelled like garlic). It's my favorite ingredient!

    1. Expat: What a great remark from Victoria Beckham! I hadn't heard it before. I wonder if it's even true any more? (that Spain smells like garlic). What do you think?

  3. My fiancé's city, Zamora, is just about ready to celebrate La Feria del Ajo. No, they don't sell dishes made with garlic, just mountains and mountains of the raw ingredient. It's too bad; I'd love to eat garlic dishes (like this one)!

    1. Kaley: I had no idea Zamora was known for its garlic. Las Pedroneras in Cuenca province also has a garlic festival. There you can taste all sorts of garlic-inflected foods, including from Michelin-starred chef Manolo de la Osa of Las Rejas restaurant.

  4. Wow! 20,000 tons, that's incredible! Imagine processing all that garlic...
    btw, for what it's worth, I think Ajo Morado, is a softneck.
    PS. very jealous of your cooking trials in espana