I have a new culinary crush and his name is "Manuel Benitee."

"Manuel Benitee" is a sweet and flavorful Creole-style garlic from Spain that helped me turn a very simple potato and kale soup into a deeply satisfying dish that had friends and co-workers oohing and ahing and asking for more. And yes, there will be more, but not until next summer, when the cloves I saved and planted have taken root and grown into new bulbs of "Manuel Benitee."

Yeah, I know, a foodie gardener crushing on homegrown garlics with exotic names is not exactly front-page news. But when I learned that several Central Texas farmers have been quietly filling test plots with garlic varieties they've never grown before (and that most people have never even heard of), I confess I got a little excited — and curious. Especially when I heard that some of the test varieties are garlics that aren't supposed to thrive in our mild-winter climate, and that an agriculture specialist at Texas A&M University is keeping a close eye on the test plot results.

Turns out that although I know quite a bit about growing and cooking homegrown herbs and vegetables, I'm a late bloomer when it comes to homegrown garlic. That's why I'm just now figuring out that a miniboom in garlic growing (and apparently, garlic eating) is underway among home gardeners and small farmers all over the country. Central Texas is no exception.

A few years ago, certified organic farmer Ray Reininger of M and R Farm near Seguin began reading everything he could find online about "gourmet garlic." That's what some garlic growers were calling the little-known varieties that plant collectors (including horticulturists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture) were bringing back from hunting expeditions in Central Asia and other faraway places. (Because of those late '80s and early '90s expeditions, it is now thought that Central Asia is where wild garlic and its earliest cultivars originated.)

Like a lot of other small garlic growers before him, Reininger began by ordering a few seed garlics with exotic names from online garlic sellers. Every variety he planted worked. That was good, but even better was how well they sold at the Austin Farmers' Market Downtown. This year, his garlic harvest sold out faster than ever before, and when a lot of his regular customers started asking, "When will you have garlic again?" he decided it was time to up the ante. In late September, he planted 29 varieties of gourmet garlic, including "Chesnok Red," "Romanian Red" and "Uzbek."

Reininger had been spending less than $10 a year on seed garlic. "Last year that went to about $400, and this year about $1,200," he said. "Part of that is because of how well I did last year. I also wanted to try different varieties to see what would work. I hope last year was not just a fluke because of the colder-than-usual winter. We will have to wait until about June to see if the new varieties will work."

And why, you might be wondering, would anyone want to grow their own garlic or pay $15 to $20 a pound for specialty garlics at a farmers market when the big white bulbs of garlic in the bins at the grocery store taste just fine and only cost about 50 cents each? Garlic is garlic, right? Well, maybe. It probably depends a lot on your taste buds.

What if I said squash is squash and pepper is pepper? I think a lot of people would agree that yellow squash and butternut squash taste different and so do bell pepper and serrano pepper. And although garlic differences are a bit more subtle, devoted garlic collectors and garlic eaters can talk all day about the different flavors, colors and bulb configurations among the major garlic classes — rocambole, Creole, turban and artichoke, just to name a few.

If you find that you appreciate the subtly sweet and rich flavor of a good homegrown Creole garlic or the earthy complexity of a rocambole, why limit your taste buds or your recipes to the commercial standards for U.S. garlic, "California Late" and "California Early"? Large commercial growers like these two artichoke varieties because they're easy to grow, easy to transport and can be stored for a long time. But even though these supermarket variety bulbs get the job done when a recipe calls for garlic, they're not likely to rate high on a garlic taste test.

One local garlic grower I visited can tell you firsthand about the taste of his gourmet garlic. Wholesale nursery grower Sam Slaughter, who with wife Cathy runs Gabriel Valley Farms in Georgetown, eats a raw garlic clove everyday with his lunch. " ‘Chinese Pink' (a very early maturing turban) loses a lot of flavor in cooking, but raw, has a very loud, spicy flavor," he said. "I really like the Creoles. They're good raw and good cooked."

Sam got bitten by the gourmet garlic-growing bug about two years ago. Or as Cathy puts it, growing gourmet garlic has become Sam's "pet project." His project began with a plot containing 300 cloves, which grew into about 300 mature garlic bulbs. His new garlic plot, freshly planted this month, contains 2,700 gourmet garlic cloves from 20 different varieties, including some in the rocambole, turban, artichoke and porcelain classes. Most of the cloves he planted this month came from bulbs he saved from the previous two years' garlic crops.

Sam would love to see gourmet garlic catch on with home gardeners and small farmers (which would then boost demand for his wholesale garlic plants and seed garlic), but if that doesn't happen, he's going to keep growing garlic anyway. "Whether it takes off or not, I will be growing garlic for myself. I'm the cook at my house, and I haven't found anything that you shouldn't use garlic with."

I know what Sam means. I feel the same way about my homegrown heirloom tomatoes. And now that I've discovered how good homegrown garlic can be, I'm looking forward to tending to my own little test plot, which in addition to the aforementioned "Manuel Benitee" will include "Lorz," a big, hunky and flavorful artichoke from Southern Italy. ("Lorz" by the way, has added a whole new flavor dimension to my basil pesto and hummus recipes.) I'll probably also plant a few cloves of the rocambole "Ontario Purple Trillium." Doesn't it sound like it should go great with "Cherokee Purple" tomatoes?

One more thing worth considering regarding cost: Once I settle on a few types of garlic I really like, I'll never have to buy them again. At harvest time, I'll just set aside a head or two of each kind to save until planting time in the fall, when I'll break the heads into cloves and plant them like seeds. In the long run, I'm thinking a lifetime supply of homegrown garlic is cheaper than a lifetime supply of commercially grown supermarket garlic (as long as I make my own compost and use chopped leaves as mulch).

Another reason to grow your own? After they're properly dried, most homegrown garlics will keep for five to 10 months at room temperature, depending on the type. (Rocamboles are thought by many garlic lovers to be the best tasting of all garlics, but they don't keep as long as varieties in the artichoke and Creole classes.)

And finally, now that I'm getting hooked on homegrown garlic, I'm having fun looking for new ways to put garlic front and center in my next meal. One thing I can't figure out, though: How could anyone have ever believed that garlic could ward off evil spirits? Sure, some garlic can be quite strong and stinky, and sometimes really hot, too, but onions, which are in the same plant family, can be just as stinky and hot. I don't recall Dracula having trouble with onions.

rstudebaker@statesman.com; 445-3946

Garlicky Hummus

In the past month I have made this fairly basic hummus recipe with six different varieties of garlic, including a standard artichoke variety from the grocery store. My favorite versions were made with either "Lorz" (artichoke), "Purple Trillium" (rocambole) or "German Hardy" (porcelain). One of my colleagues who tasted the hummus said he thought I should make it by the jar and give it to friends for Christmas. Mmm, interesting idea.

1 15-oz. can good-quality garbanzo beans (I really like the Central Market brand of organic garbanzos, but whichever brand you use, taste the beans first to make sure they're smooth and not crumbly)

4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled (see note)

About 3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 Tbsp. sesame tahini

3 Tbsp. good-quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. salt, or more to taste

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Using a spatula, scrape mixture off sides of processor bowl to make sure everything processed evenly. Mixture should be absolutely smooth with no little crumblies. If your hummus has little bits in it, keep on processing until it's perfectly smooth. Serve with pita bread or raw slices of cucumber and red bell pepper.

Note: If you're a real garlic head, experiment with adding more cloves to this recipe. I've been surprised at how much fresh gourmet garlic I can use without being overpowered. So far, most of the varieties of gourmet garlic I've tried have been full of rich and sometimes spicy flavor, but without any harsh or lingering aftertastes. In fact, within a few hours, I forgot that I'd eaten raw garlic. I don't know about you, but I lose affection for a garlic flavor if it lingers for more than a day.

— Renee Studebaker

Where to find gourmet garlic by the pound and by the bulb

Fall is prime time for planting garlic, but experienced garlic lovers know that if they want to plant a particular variety, they need to order early, usually in late July and early August. This year's rush to order specialty seed garlic was pretty much over by Aug. 1 because demand was bigger than supply among most of the major garlic-selling websites.

If you google `seed garlic' and `gourmet garlic,' and you mighty find a few bulbs or cloves by the pound, but many growers are sold out for the season. Popular garlic sellers include: gourmetgarlicgardens.com ; wegrowgarlic.com ; www.filareefarm.com ; www.greyduckgarlic.com ; www.hoodrivergarlic.com .

Self-proclaimed garlicmeister Bob Anderson of gourmetgarlicgardens.com, which is based in Bangs, says he's seen slow but steady growth in his specialty garlic business during the past 10 years, but this year, demand picked up considerably. `The demand greatly exceeds the supply in all varieties, especially Creoles, which grow well in Central Texas,' he said. `And the more people learn about these gourmet garlics, the greater the demand becomes.'

Next spring, look for green garlic at your favorite farmers' market. Green garlic is harvested before its bulb starts multiplying into cloves. Green garlic flavor is much milder than mature garlic. Fresh mature garlic that has been cured and dried starts showing up at farmers markets around June, or sometimes earlier, depending on whether the farmer is growing an early or a late variety. Save a few cloves from the varieties you like the best and then plant them in your garden or in a container next fall.

Garlic flavor changes depending on how you slice it and cook it

A lot of different flavors live in one little clove of garlic. Raw garlic, crushed and chopped, produces the strongest and spiciest flavor.

When Sam Slaughter makes sauce for pasta, he starts by sautéing chopped garlic and shallots (which he also grows). Cooking chopped garlic mellows the flavor and erases the hot sting. To put a little sting back in the pasta sauce, Slaughter stirs in a clove of pressed raw garlic right before serving. `It's like having a different recipe,' he said.

Frying or sautéing garlic until lightly browned brings out a mellow nutty flavor. But garlic that is too brown can develop a sharp burnt taste.

In general, the intensity of garlic increases the more you smash it or cut it. Minced garlic makes a dish taste more garlicky than sliced garlic. Whole cloves cooked in a pot of soup will leave a mild and mellow garlic flavor. Whole roasted garlic has a mild, almost sweet buttery flavor.

Also, most garlic experts agree that crushing or chopping garlic releases more of its healthy compounds.