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July, 2008

The Drama of Garlic

By Christina Pirello

Garlic (allium sativum) is most amazing, known as much for its myth and legend as for its distinctive flavor. An annual bulbous herb, native to Asia, garlic has grown for over five thousand years, making it one of the oldest cultivated plants in history.

Garlic
Garlic
I can't imagine life without garlic. Its distinctive flavor makes my cooking sparkle; simple recipes come alive with its addition. How can such a humble little bulb create such drama? Garlic (allium sativum) is most amazing, known as much for its myth and legend as for its distinctive flavor. An annual bulbous herb, native to Asia, garlic has grown for over five thousand years, making it one of the oldest cultivated plants in history. It is said that Egyptians fed slaves garlic daily, believing that it had the power to increase strength and endurance. So enamored of garlic's power, the Egyptians raised it to the level of divinity, including it in many wall paintings in tombs.

Ancient Greek athletes ate garlic before competition for stimulation and focus, while Roman soldiers consumed it for courage, before going into battle. With the Crusades, garlic cultivation spread across Europe, with myth and legend following its fragrant path. In Turkey, it was said that garlic was the invention of the devil, created as he was cast from Paradise, while many in Eastern Europe used garlic to ward off evil spirits, including vampires. Legend aside, garlic has been used for centuries for its strong therapeutic properties. Credited to be a stomach aid, diuretic, anti-arthritic and antiseptic, garlic is truly amazing. It has been used to relieve the symptoms of gout, hypertension and digestive difficulties. No fairy tale, science has confirmed the strong character of garlic. Used as an antibiotic during World War II, it has since been discovered that it contains large quantities of the powerful natural antibiotic, allyl sulfide.

In the spring, the garlic bulb develops two leaves with parallel veins. From the center, a floral stem grows to a height of about three feet, topped by snowy white flowers, which quickly turn to small purple fruits containing seeds, which are sterile with the plant reproducing from the familiar bulb. The bulb is composed of a cluster of twelve to sixteen cloves; each wrapped in a paper-like skin. Garlic is ready for harvest in the autumn, when its long, flat leaves begin to wilt. After harvest, the garlic is left in the sun for several days to dry, the most common form sold. On occasion, during the summer months, you can find fresh garlic--when you do, don't miss the chance to taste it. The flavor, while familiar, has an unparalleled sweetness.

Since it is most often dried, garlic is sold year-round, with not much seasonality attached to its use. Working with garlic is easy. Gently press the clove to loosen the skin and pull it away from the flesh. I suggest removing the tiny green sprout that sometimes appears at the tip of the clove, as it is the culprit for the characteristic "bad breath". Although some eat garlic as a vegetable, it is most often used as a condiment, flavoring meats, vegetables, fish, sauces, dressings, pesto and tapenade. Remember that the flavor of garlic is only released when cut or crushed. The finer it is cut, the more intense the flavor. To get the best garlic flavor in cooking, don't burn it, as it will turn bitter. To maximize the taste, add garlic toward the end of cooking--simmering for too long weakens its aromatic quality. It is not necessary to refrigerate garlic, as its strong perfume can flavor other food. Stored at room temperature, away from humidity, garlic can be kept for up to six months. And while you can freeze peeled garlic cloves for two months, the flavor will change.