Consumed by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, African peasants and the builders of the Egyptian pyramids, garlic has been a popular food among many cultures since early civilizations. The aphrodisiacal effects of garlic have been touted through the ages and, at one time, it was so highly prized that it was used as currency. It was also used in ancient times to treat numerous conditions including smallpox, tuberculosis, dropsies and as protection against the plague. Hippocrates supposedly used garlic vapors to treat cervical cancer. Cherokee Indians used it as an expectorant for croup and coughs.
Today, scientific studies have shown that garlic can lower cholesterol and triglycerides levels, reduce high blood pressure, help coronary heart disease, help with muscle cramps after exertion, and cure many different types of fungal infections, e.g, athlete's foot and thrush. Some medical experts believe that garlic can also help in the reduction of certain cancers such as colon and stomach cancer. Further, the anti-bacterial properties of garlic are widely accepted. Garlic poultices were used on the wounds of World War II soldiers when antibiotics were scarce. Recent studies have not effectively isolated alliin, allicin and ajoene- the compounds in garlic with the highest health benefits- so some results have been inconclusive.
Spiritually, garlic has been seen as a force for good or evil - for example, there are strong folk beliefs of its ability to ward off werewolves and vampires - and some religions have specific rules about its use or avoidance. Who knows, in a world of vampires, perhaps I'd take a chance on it. It's never let me down before.
Even without conclusive documentation, garlic is considered to be one of the healthiest foods to consume. Medical and healing claims aside, garlic is one the staples of savory cooking. There are over 300 varieties of garlic in the world, although most of what we buy in the U.S. is of one variety of "hard neck" garlic, named for the hard stalk in the center of the head. Left whole, the aroma is slight and flavor minimal. But crushed, chopped or pressed and garlic comes alive, adding pungent flavor to whatever dish you are preparing. When cooked, garlic's flavor can mellow to become slightly sweet. The smaller you cut it, the stronger the flavor. Chopping finely and/or pressing a clove exposes more surfaces to the air, causing a chemical reaction to produce that strong aroma and potent flavor.
When using raw garlic, choose garlic that adds sweet and spicy flavors, sometimes with a nice heat, but is not bitter. As with all fresh foods, identify the source of the garlic you buy and look for solid bulbs that are slightly pliable but not soft. Store garlic at home in a warm, dry spot to keep it dormant, i.e., so that it does not sprout. The best way to store it is on your kitchen counter in a garlic cellar with a lid. Over time, however, unused cloves or bulbs will dry out or rot.
My favorite way to enjoy fresh garlic is garlic bread or as the main seasoning for a simple garlic and chopped tomato topping over spaghetti. The garlic eggplant recipe below is a terrific party dip that even non-eggplant-lovers will enjoy. The great mayonnaise is easy to make and is great on sandwiches. Eat garlic ... live well!
P.S. If you've never gone, consider attending the 2010 Gilroy Garlic Festival, which runs annually the last full weekend in July. The three-day event features garlic prepared every way possible (including garlic ice cream) plus many eating and fun activities. Attendance at the 2009 event in Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world, topped 108,000. Check out www.gilroygarlicfestival.com
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Jacqui's Garlic Bread (1 loaf)
1 quality baguette
2-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup melted butter
2 Tbsp grated parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice the baguette in half lengthwise, then on the diagonal into 2-inch slices.
2. Mix all the topping ingredients together; brush them over the cut sides of the bread. Use more or less garlic to taste, as desired.
3. Wrap the baguette in foil. Bake 20 minutes. Sprinkle a generous pinch of pepper over the slices before serving.
6 Tbsp mayonnaise
2 large cloves garlic, pressed
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Blend the mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil in a bowl; season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and chill until used.
Garlic Eggplant Dip
1 large eggplant
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, minced
2 large carrots, grated
2-1/2 tsp ground coriander
1-28-oz can tomatoes
1 head garlic, minced
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 tsp sugar
Kosher salt, pepper to taste
Fresh parsley, chopped
1. Wash and peel the eggplant; cut into 1-inch cubes. Sprinkle with coarse salt and allow to sit, letting the bitter juices drain out. After 30 minutes, squeeze with paper towels to soak up the juices.
2. Heat oil over medium heat; sauté onion and carrots together until lightly brown. Add eggplant and continue to sauté for 5 more minutes.
3. Add coriander and tomatoes, stirring well, and partially cover pot. Cook down over medium heat until eggplant is thoroughly soft, about 30 minutes.
4. Uncover pot and add garlic, lemon juice, sugar and salt and pepper to taste, for about 5 miutes.
5. Serve cool or at room temperature, sprinkled with chopped parsley. Note: As a party dip, serve with crackers, bread or veggie sticks; or use as a sandwich spread.