Spring is busting out all over, but I remember vividly that subzero Minnesota evening a few months ago – the kind that this eternal winter handed us in soul-crushing abundance.

In an attempt to bright-side the weather – look, it’s a starry night – my spouse and I decided to pile on the Thinsulate and walk the 11 blocks to dinner. By the time we arrived at the 128 Cafe in St. Paul, we were proceeding at a brisk pace and questioning our sanity.

Once inside, we managed to warm ourselves – psychologically, anyway – on the retro coziness of the restaurant’s knotty pine walls. To thaw out our appetites, we turned to a reliable standby: roasted garlic.

A build-it-yourself crostini featuring roasted garlic has been a 128 staple for as long as I can remember, surviving several changes in ownership. That includes last year’s sale to chef Max Thompson, who has retained – and subtly improved – a handful of 128 classics, including that fragrant roasted garlic.

Using the tips of our knives, we coaxed out one clove after another, liberally spreading them on thin spears of grilled bread, then adding a swipe of tangy chevre, skinny snips of tart apple and dollops of a sweet-hot chutney of peppers and golden raisins.

The melding of those flavors was a beautiful thing. Replicating the dish at home immediately shot to the top of my cooking to-do list.

Out came the cookbooks. Turning to four of my steadfast kitchen library gurus – Marcus Samuelsson, Mark Bittman, Deborah Madison and Martha Stewart – I cobbled together a strategy that borrows elements from each of them. Here goes:

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Rub off most but not all of the garlic’s outer papery skins, leaving enough to hold cloves together.

Using a serrated knife, cut off the top ½ inch from the bulb, exposing the tops of the cloves (some recipes call for leaving the bulb whole, but pre-cutting makes it easier to handle the garlic post-roasting, with minimal difference in the final outcome).

Place garlic in a shallow baking pan and drizzle with 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil per garlic bulb. Add 2 tablespoons water to the bottom of the pan, and if you have a sprig or two of fresh thyme, toss it in.

Cover with aluminum foil and roast for 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and roast for 15 to 20 minutes more, until the cloves are pliable and slightly browned.

Remove from the oven and allow the garlic to cool until it can be easily handled. Cloves can be squeezed from the bulb or removed with a knife.

Now was the time to follow Thompson’s example, crostini-wise.

Goat cheese and baguette? Check. We were out of apples, but a crisp pear proved a fine substitute. Too time-pressed (OK, too lazy) to prepare chutney myself, I decided to take my chances with our refrigerator’s condiments inventory, rooting out an apple-peach-apricot chutney. Success.

Since then, I’ve discovered that the uses for roasted garlic are limitless. Substitute its mellow richness for raw in sauces, salad dressings and mashed potatoes. Or soups, such as the recipe below.

As for the walk home on that frigid February night, we didn’t. Our dinner companions gave us a lift, although we probably could have hoofed it, because that garlic was warming us from the inside out.

COOK’S TIPS

Use only firm, smooth garlic. Avoid soft, shriveled bulbs or bulbs with sprouts.

An average size garlic bulb yields roughly 2 to 3 tablespoons roasted garlic.

To store, wrap the roasted cloves tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

GARLIC 101

The longer that garlic roasts, the mellower – and sweeter, even slightly nuttier – it becomes.

Garlic, like leeks and onions, is a member of the allium (lily) family. Its pungent scent originates in alliinase, an enzyme that “asserts itself when cell walls inside the garlic cloves are cut or crushed,” writes Leanne Kitchen in “The Produce Bible.” “The more finely the garlic is cut, the more of this sulfurous compound gets released, which has distinct consequences for cooking with garlic. Heat destroys alliinase so the longer you cook garlic, and the higher the heat it is cooked at, the milder the resulting flavor.”

LENTIL AND ROASTED GARLIC SOUP

Makes about 12 cups.

Note: French lentils are the small green variety. Any could be used in this soup.

1 whole head garlic

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large Spanish onion, chopped

2 celery ribs, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 teaspoons dried rosemary

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound French lentils (see Note), rinsed and picked over to remove debris

8 cups vegetable stock

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and diced

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon freshly minced garlic

¼ cup freshly chopped Italian parsley

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Rub off most but not all of garlic’s outer papery skins. Using a serrated knife, cut off the top ½ inch from the bulb. Place garlic in a shallow baking pan and drizzle with olive oil. Add 2 tablespoons water to bottom of pan, cover with aluminum foil and roast for 30 minutes. Remove aluminum foil and roast for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until cloves are pliable and slightly browned. Remove from oven. When cool enough to handle, remove cloves from skin and purée in a food processor or blender; reserve until ready to use.

Meanwhile, in a large stockpot over medium heat, melt butter. Add onion, celery and carrots and sweat until tender, about 4 minutes.

Add rosemary, bay leaves, salt and pepper and stir to coat vegetables.

Add lentils, vegetable stock, tomatoes and tomato paste. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, partially cover and simmer for 1 hour, until lentils are tender.

Stir in puréed roasted garlic, vinegar and fresh garlic. Simmer for 2 minutes to heat through.

To serve, remove bay leaves, ladle soup into bowls and top with chopped parsley.

– From: “The Daily Soup” by Leslie Kaul, Bob Spiegel, Carla Ruben and Peter Siegel