I spent last week on the coast of Northern California, splitting the time between Marin County north of San Francisco, and Big Sur to the south. We drove north to south in the middle of the week, through golden hills and irrigated rows of green. Suddenly, with fields all around, I sniffed. Had I forgot to wash my hands after last night's garlicky pasta dinner? No — even that wouldn't give off this garlic pungence, this scent of a thousand garlic cloves minced and oily. Welcome to Gilroy, California, the capital of garlic. Here, in honor of Gilroy, for all you garlic-lovers, is a pasta salad with not one, not two, but three whole heads of garlic.
Gilroy's special aroma, which can be fully experienced even from a fast-moving car on a highway outside town, is well-documented. You can even check the state of today's Gilroy smell with this website: How Does Gilroy Smell Today?, with a scale, naturally, of garlic heads, 1 to 5.
I admit that I rather liked the smell of Gilroy, musky and sweet, all-encompassing. I am a garlic-lover through and through. But while I have a staggering amount of garlic in this pasta salad, you don't need to love all its pungent aspects as much as I do. Here the garlic is roasted until sweet and soft, then whipped into ricotta and yogurt. With the dairy, the roasted garlic is surprisingly mellow; it doesn't overpower this salad at all. In fact, it forms a strong background note of nutty sweetness; all that crazy garlic power is smoothed away.
It also blooms overnight in the fridge; this is a good pasta salad to make a night ahead. The garlic's best aromas come out overnight, and the chunks of tomatoes and olives tuck themselves into the pasta shells. The yogurt gives tang, and the ricotta is simply delicious. It's a go-to pasta salad for me, and a great vegetarian weeknight dinner.
So don't be afraid of the three whole garlic heads; roast away, remember Gilroy, and enjoy garlic in all its many tastes.
Roasted Garlic, Olive and Tomato Pasta Salad
3 small heads garlic
1 pound medium pasta shells
15 ounces whole or skim milk ricotta
3/4 cup whole milk yogurt
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 small tomatoes (about 1 pound), roughly diced
1 cup black or green olives, sliced
1/3 cup firmly packed cup fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
Heat the oven to 400°F. Slice the tops off the garlic heads. Drizzle with olive oil and place in the center of a large square of foil and fold to seal. Place the packet in a baking pan and roast for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the garlic is very soft. Remove, and let cool.
Cook the pasta according to directions. Drain and remove to a large bowl. Toss with a little olive oil, and let cool while making the dressing. Whisk the ricotta and yogurt together until lightened and smooth, and add in all of the roasted garlic - squeezing the soft garlic out of each clove. Whisk vigorously, until the garlic is well-incorporated. Whisk in the salt and season generously with black pepper. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour the ricotta mixture over the pasta and add the tomatoes, olives, and basil. Toss to coat. Taste and season further if needed with salt and pepper.
Serve slightly warm or chilled. The texture is best when served immediately, but the garlic flavor improves overnight, so either way it's good!
(Originally published July 19, 2007, with only two heads of garlic!)
(Images: Faith Durand)