Garlic is a member of the Allium family, along with onions, leeks and shallots. Like a tulip or daffodil, garlic grows from a bulb underground, producing leaves and a flower stalk. The underground bulb, with its individual cloves, is what humans have cooked with for more than 6,000 years.
Garlic originated in central Asia. Although Gilroy, Ca, calls itself the garlic capital of the world, China is the world's dominant garlic producer. Garlic shows up in many world cuisines, from garlicky Asian sauces, to Italian pasta dishes, to the classic French sauce, aioli.
Ancient Greeks and Romans embraced garlic for its health benefits; the Roman physician Galen praised its cure-all properties. Today, the National Institutes for Health notes that garlic is used as medicine for many conditions involving the heart and blood system, and for treating the immune system. Garlic also has anti-inflammatory and infection-fighting properties. According to the NIH, garlic is ''possibly effective'' when used as treatment for high blood pressure, fungal infections of the skin, hardening of the arteries, and colon, rectal and stomach cancer. When used medicinally, garlic is typically concentrated into extract or powder and given as tablets or capsules.
Varieties of Garlic
Garlic comes in hardneck and softneck varieties. Softneck varieties have a flexible flower stalk (which can be braided) and smaller cloves; most commercially available garlic is of this variety. Hardneck garlics have a firm, edible flower stalk (called a scape) and larger cloves. Increasingly, small farmers are growing heirloom hardneck varieties, some of which date back hundreds of years. You can find these varieties at many farmers markets.
Garlic has been shown to moderately reduce cholesterol, and its sulfur compounds have been shown to reduce blood pressure. It's also low in calories (4 calories per clove) and high in vitamin C, selenium and magnesium. Very preliminary research has suggested that garlic may inhibit the production of fat cells in the body.
|A Note on Prepared/Processed Garlic|
|Allicin, a unique sulfur component, is responsible for garlic's pungent flavor and also for some of its health benefits. Allicin is released when a clove of garlic is chopped and is at its most potent when used soon after chopping. For this reason, prepared minced garlic sold in jars in the grocery is less flavorful and less beneficial than fresh garlic. Pre-minced garlic is packaged with oil and preservatives like citric or phosphoric acid. Since it's so easy to peel and chop garlic, using fresh is recommended. You can even grow it at home pretty easily.|
Buying and Storing
Look for garlic bulbs that are undamaged, with their papery skins intact. Choose bulbs that have larger cloves, as these are easier to peel. Garlic can be stored in a cool, dark place for three to six months; discard any cloves that have dried out or begun to sprout.
Garlic can be eaten raw or cooked. Cooking tempers the flavor (and lessens garlic breath). To prepare garlic for cooking, remove the papery skin and the hard root end from each clove, then chop according to recipe directions. (Some research has shown that cutting or crushing garlic activates its enzymes and that it's beneficial to wait five minutes before continuing with the recipe.) You can infuse olive oil with garlic by simmering a half cup of oil in a saucepan with two or three chopped garlic cloves. Garlic can be roasted, which creates a soft, caramelized texture and sweet, rich flavor.
Note: Garlic is also sold in powdered or granulated form, which is appropriate for use in recipes like dressings, sauces or dips. Garlic powder is not a good substitute in recipes that call for sautéing or cooking fresh garlic. Granulated garlic, garlic powder and garlic salt are three different ingredients and shouldn't be used interchangeably, so pay attention to your recipe. Avoid garlic salt if you're watching your sodium levels.
The World's Healthiest Foods. ''Garlic,'' accessed July 2012. http://whfoods.org.