Some of my most vivid childhood memories are when my parents would leave us with a babysitter and go out to dinner with friends. Their restaurant of choice was a place called Saigon Express, where the cook had a generous hand with the garlic. They'd come in from dinner, smelling of cool night air, puckery dipping sauces and fragrant garlic.
Of all the kitchen training I received from my mother while growing up, the importance of fresh garlic in the kitchen has stuck with me above all. Thanks to her, garlic has always been one of my kitchen staples. I keep several fresh heads in a bowl by the stove, often roast some up in olive oil to keep in the fridge and even grind it up to eat raw when I feel a cold coming on (my husband just loves it when I do that).
In the last year or so, I've added another form of staple garlic to my kitchen rotation. Pickled garlic. If you've ever made a batch of homemade pickles that included a handful of peeled garlic cloves for flavor, I do hope you eat those garlic cloves when the jars is nearly done. The vinegar takes the edge off their natural spiciness and makes them flavorful without being overpowering.
Use pickled garlic in salad dressings or as part of a pickle plate. They're particularly good when drizzled with a bit of fruity oil. During dinner prep, I'll often coarsely chop the pickled cloves and add them to sautéed vegetables, as they add both flavor and add an acidic punch to the finished dish. When the jar is all gone, I save the leftover brine and use in homemade bean purees or quickly dressed bowls of salad greens.
People hear scary things about canning garlic. Happily, it's only an issue when you're dealing with foods that are in an acidity grey zone, like pasta sauces and salsas. This pickle can be safely canned in a boiling water bath canner because you're submerging the garlic cloves in a brine of highly puckery red wine vinegar.
Before You Get Started
Choose heads of garlic that feel tight and heavy for their size. Stay away from heads where the cloves are starting to pull away from the center.
To quickly separate garlic cloves from their heads, place the head on a large cutting board root side down. Put the palm of your hand on the head and gently press down, using the weight of your body (tables work better than countertops for this), until the cloves split apart from the head.
The easiest way to peel a large number of garlic cloves that I've found is to blanch them. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and prep an ice water bath. When the water is boiling, drop the garlic cloves in and let them dance in the water for two to three minutes. When the time is up, transfer them to the ice water bath. When they're cool enough to handle, you should be able to pop the cloves right out of their peels.