In the town of Gilroy, the air blows fresh and fragrant

IT all looks so peaceful aboveground. Smooth, straw-colored hills roll down to meet cherry and nut orchards that surround a quiet town of 24,000 whose concern for most of the year is how the Gilroy Gators swim team is doing. But lurking in darkness just four inches beneath the soil, in its pristine paper-white wrapping, grows the bane of vampires, pearl of chefs, and teaser of tongues.

We're in Gilroy, and we're talkin' garlic!

At this seventh annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, you could barely squeeze a bay leaf between the cars in the 125-acre parking lot. Over 135,000 people spilled into the 45-acre park to sample just what garlic can do. More than 100 food booths offered everything from garlicky French-fried artichoke hearts to strawberries dipped in garlic sour cream, scampi with garlic, and garlic-stuffed mushrooms, plus pizza and escargots -- prepared with garlic, of course.

While women here were lining up to test ``Garlique'' perfume and men were pinning on their garlic bulb boutonnieres, tastefully topped with a bow of colorful grosgrain ribbon, they were entertained by a nonstop program of music -- rock, country, and jazz (from the Dixie Grits) -- and demonstrations of martial arts and aerobic dancing.

Eleven-year-old Sabrina (who was cautious enough not to give her last name to a stranger) has attended the festival for enough years to make some definite impressions. Her absolute favorite is garlic jelly -- ``just plain on a cracker'' -- and she likes the garlic ice cream better this year. ``It's a little more like vanilla and doesn't have the aftertaste it had last year.''

Even if you don't particularly care for garlic ice cream, you haven't lost anything. It's given away free, served in tiny thimble-size cones. ``Just vanilla with a little powdered garlic in it,'' says the barker at the concession. Tasty, certainly, but you can be sure the folks at Baskin-Robbins aren't losing sleep over this one.

Val Filice, who looks more like Cesar Romero than he ought to (except for the checkered golf hat), is the self-declared executive chef of Gourmet Alley, the largest concession on the grounds. It comprises 1,000 volunteers working in four-hour shifts -- cooking, slicing peppers, saut'eing squid, washing dishes, and serving the crowds.

``The calamari is my recipe,'' boasts Val. ``It's the same every year. Why should you change a winning recipe?'' he asks, peering over his dark glasses. ``This year we're selling seven foods in Gourmet Alley: garlic bread, stir-fry vegetables, broiled stuffed mushroom caps, pasta con pesto, pepper steak sandwiches, my own calamari, and scampi.''

All these seasoned with just a smidgen over a ton of fresh garlic. As one of the cooks here put it, ``Garlic can turn a non-cook into a gourmet.''

``We started with 50 pounds of scampi the first year, just to try it. Sold out in five minutes,'' says Val. Last year Gourmet Alley sold over 3,000 pounds of shrimp, almost 10,000 pounds of sirloin, and nearly 8,000 pounds of squid, to a crowd of more than 125,000 people.

One of the most winning smiles on the lot this year was worn by Ren'ee Norine Telse of Saugus, Calif. Ren'ee (``accent over the second `e,' please'') captivated the judges of the annual garlic cook-off with her ``Ren'ee's Seafood Fra Diabolo,'' beating out 750 other entrants.

And she managed to whip up this complicated combination of lobster, mussels, clams, homemade pasta, and 1/2 cup of fresh garlic without so much as nicking a chip from her red, white, and black diagonally striped nail polish.

Ren'ee edged out Debbie Sheesley's ``Lady Sings the Greens,'' a salad of spinach, endive, and lettuce with a dressing that bites back, and Becky Boehne's delicious recipe for Garlic Stuffed Jalapeos.

This was the first recipe contest Ren'ee had ever entered. ``My parents entered a chili cook-off and had such a good time I thought I'd give this a try,'' she says.

She also gives full credit to her husband for encouraging her, and to their 140-pound sheep dog, Georgie Girl, who, she says, ``eats all the mistakes.''

There may be no stopping Ren'ee now. She's also entered the ``Kraft Marshmallow-Cream Secret Ingredient Contest'' and is anxiously awaiting the judges' verdict on her special ``Pork Chops Aloha.'' ``It's pork chops with mandarin oranges, coconut, raisins, dates, marshmallow cream, of course, and even garlic, among other things,'' she explains.

Does Ren'ee have a secret to her cooking? ``Well, I'm a heavy-handed spice person,'' she says. ``I don't make anything subtle or delicate. Plus I'm into aesthetics. I got the idea for the Seafood Diabolo at an Italian restaurant in New York. But it didn't look good and was too bland. The sauce was too watery and everything was in a pile. I came back to California and played around and perfected it.'' Ren'ee's Seafood Fra Diabolo 1/2 cup chopped fresh garlic 1/4 cup olive oil 1 1-pound lobster in shell, cleaned, with legs, claws, antennae removed 6 large shrimp, cleaned 1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced 1 small onion, chopped 5 leaves each fresh mint, basil, and oregano, chopped 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper 1 teaspoon clam or chicken soup base, paste or granules 1/4 cup vinegar 1 can (28 ounces) whole Italian tomatoes with basil 8 large mussels, scrubbed 6 large clams, scrubbed 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley 1 pound thin spaghetti or vermicelli, cooked and drained

In 14-inch skillet, cook 1/4 cup garlic in hot oil over high heat 2 to 3 minutes, being careful not to burn it. Add lobster and shrimp and cook on high heat 3 to 4 minutes, until lobster turns pink. Remove lobster and shrimp and set aside.

Add remaining 1/4 cup garlic, mushrooms, onion, herbs, and red pepper and cook over medium heat 7 to 9 minutes, stirring frequently. Blend mixture in blender or food processor. Add soup base, vinegar, tomatoes with juice. Pur'ee.

Pour into 2- to 3-quart saucepan and cook over medium high heat, adding mussels and clams when mixture begins to boil. Stir often until mussels and clams open, then add parsley. Remove clams and mussels to dish with lobster and shrimp.

Toss pasta with 2 cups of sauce and spread on a large ovenproof serving platter. Place lobster in center of pasta and place shrimps, mussels, and clams decoratively on both sides.

Pour remaining sauce over, without hiding shellfish. Cover with foil and place in preheated 375 degree F. oven 7 to 10 minutes until piping hot. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Seven-Clove Hash 7 cloves fresh garlic, minced 1/2 cup diced red onion 1/3 cup diced celery 1/3 cup diced green pepper 1/3 cup diced mushrooms 1/3 cup chopped scallions 2 cups diced roast beef 1 cup diced cooked potatoes Seasonings to taste: salt, pepper, basil, oregano, parsley, crushed red pepper, garlic powder, Worcestershire sauce, hot green chili salsa, and Tabasco 4 extra-large eggs

In large well-greased skillet, combine garlic, onion, celery, green pepper, mushrooms, and scallions and saut'e slowly over medium heat. When golden brown, mix in meat and potatoes. Turn heat to medium high. Cook until a crust starts to form on bottom, then stir constantly to brown throughout while adding seasonings to taste.

When nearly all browned, pat mixture down firmly to form a level cake. Carve out four evenly spaced hollows. Crack and slip an egg into each hollow, being careful not to break yolks. Turn heat back to medium and be patient. When egg whites are firm but yolks still soft, serve on warm plates. (Recipe submitted by Dr. Carl Jensen of Cotati, Calif.) Chicken Provincial 1 whole bulb fresh garlic 1 chicken, quartered 4 potatoes, peeled 3 carrots, sliced diagonally 2 onions, quartered 20 cherry tomatoes 20 mushrooms 1 cup pitted ripe olives, drained 1 cup olive oil 1 tablespoon dried thyme Salt and pepper to taste

Break garlic into cloves, peel, and cut into slivers. Place garlic under skin of chicken and also make slits and insert slivers. Place chicken in roasting pan with potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, and olives. Pour olive oil over all and sprinkle heavily with thyme.

Bake, uncovered, 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees F. Baste every 15 minutes. Serve with French bread to soak up juices. (Submitted by Joyce Brower of San Diego.) Fettuccelle Al Limone (Pasta With Lemon Sauce) 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil 12 large cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped 1 teaspoon dry sweet basil leaves, finely crushed by hand 1 whole small fresh lemon, with skin, finely chopped in blender or processor 1/2 cup beef broth 1 tablespoon wild honey, or to taste 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 12 ounces fettuccelle or other pasta 8 ounces cooked ham in 1/4-inch slices 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In large skillet, melt butter over medium heat, add oil, stir to mix with butter, then add garlic and basil. Cook uncovered just until garlic begins to brown, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low and add lemon, including juice. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Stir in broth, honey, and red pepper. Simmer 5 minutes. Pur'ee in food processor and set aside. In 5-quart cooking pot, cook pasta according to directions. Drain and return to cooking pot.

Add pur'eed sauce and ham; toss to blend. Cook uncovered over medium heat until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir often. Remove from heat and add Parmesan cheese. Toss gently until pasta is well coated and cheese well blended. Serves 4. (Submitted by Dawn Cardellio of Agoura, Calif.)

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