I didn’t cook with garlic until I was about 10 years old. My mother, you see, didn’t like it. I know, right? An Italian cook who didn’t like garlic! Since she did all the cooking for our immediate and extended family, we didn’t eat garlic. I didn’t know garlic.
Then she went to work full-time and my Nonna took over some of the cooking and I couldn’t figure out what made her food – different. Her gravy seemed richer; her sautéed greens and beans more delicious. Cooking with her one day after school, I saw the garlic. Stunned, knowing my mother’s taste, I asked about it.
“I’m cooking now,” she said. “Now you’ll taste why Italian food is the best in the world.” My Nonna was nothing if not proud to be Italian!
And so I fell in love with this aromatic herb we know as garlic.
Affectionately known as the “stinking rose,” garlic is a member of the allium or lily family and has been revered for thousands of years for its therapeutic effects on human health and wellbeing. All allium members are rich in sulfur-containing compounds that have a certain – perfume about them. Garlic is particularly rich in these compounds which give it the health-promoting effects we love… even with the breath we hate.
Used as food and medicine for thousands of years, Hippocrates prescribed garlic for a variety of conditions from fatigue to respiratory issues to parasites and poor digestion. The original Greek Olympic athletes were fed garlic, making it possibly the first performance-enhancing substance!
According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), garlic can be used for several conditions linked to the blood system and heart, including atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), high cholesterol, heart attack, coronary heart disease and hypertension.
Garlic is also used today by some people for the prevention of lung cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, stomach cancer, rectal cancer and colon cancer. Diallyl sulfide, a compound in garlic, was shown to be substantially more effective than two popular antibiotics in intestinal infections.
The NIH adds “Some of these uses are supported by science.”
I love when folk medicine and science collide producing the proof modern people love – and need – to validate ancient wisdom.
While some people can’t enjoy garlic for health reasons – or like my mother, simply don’t like it, most of us adore the pungent flavor it brings to our cooking. With a cold winter coming, it’s time to start loading up on hearty, nutrient-dense foods. Garlic is a true superstar that packs a nutritional punch as well as making any dish just a little yummier.
Did I mention that it’s a good combatant of colds and the flu?
Picking a lovely garlic is easy. Since it’s available year round, there isn’t a distinct season when it’s at its best. Simply choose plump, firm bulbs with tight cloves. Bulbs that appear drier, where the skin easily falls off, are not so fresh. If you slice open your garlic clove and notice that there is a green stem inside, this indicates that your garlic is sprouting and past its prime. It is still okay to use it, but you’ll want to remove the green sprout prior to cooking, as it can be bitter and promotes “garlic breath.” In the spring and summer months, you can look for locally grown garlic at your farmers’ market. This variety is usually much firmer, with a mild flavor and a light pinkish-purple color.
When chopping garlic, the release of sugars and oils can make for a sticky texture, but that’s where a garlic press can be an excellent tool.
Roasting garlic is one of the most delicious ways to prepare it, as the pungent flavor is mellowed, even sweetened, because the roasting process releases sugars with an almost caramel-like flavor. I like to roast the whole head. Simply slice off the top third of the head of garlic and drizzle it with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and wrap with foil. Bake at 350F for approximately 40 minutes. Once the roasted garlic has cooled, simply squeeze the bottom of the head and the roasted cloves will squeeze out in a creamy paste. We love to spread it on fresh-baked bread for a real treat!
You can use garlic raw in salsa recipes or salad dressings where there is an “acid” like vinegar or lemon or lime juice. If you like it raw in other recipes, have at it. For me, it’s too strong unless I balance it with acidity and seasonings to “gentle” the strong flavor.
Do…not…burn…your…garlic. Such drama, right? I can’t imagine a less delicious flavor than the bitterness of burnt garlic. It can ruin a dish. So use medium heat when cooking it and pay attention as it sizzles.
Watch your volume. Lots of us love garlic, but there’s a limit. My rule of thumb is that if you can taste the garlic distinctly, there’s too much in the dish. In my perfect world, garlic is an underlying flavor that is detectable but that doesn’t mask or overwhelm the other flavors in the dish. However, to each their own on this one.
Finally, have fun with this powerful food. It’s delicious, promotes wellness and vitality, is easy to work with – is said to be an aphrodisiac – and gives even the simplest of recipes a bit of operatic drama.
We can all use a bit more of that in life.
Garlic really shines in this rich, special-occasion dish!
Deep Fried Cauiliflower with Garlic Oil