The Foodie

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The Foodie: Garlic

October 09, 2008
by Colleen Brondou
Some say it can ward off vampires and protect against evil. Others say it can ward off high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, inflammation, bacteria and certain kinds of cancer. Still others say it just plain tastes good. What is this wonder food? Behold, the humble garlic clove.

Garlic 101

Depending on how you prepare it, Allium sativa presents a variety of different personalities. There’s the potent bite of raw minced garlic tossed in a salad, quite a contrast to the slightly sweet, subtly smoky flavor of roasted garlic spread on a crusty loaf of bread. And what of the heady aroma and savory flavor that garlic sautéed in butter or olive oil adds to just about any dish?

Native to central Asia, garlic, a member of the lily family, has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptians attributed sacred qualities to garlic and placed it in the tombs of Pharaohs. They also thought that garlic could enhance strength and endurance; the slaves who built the pyramids were fed garlic. The ancient Greeks and Romans held similar beliefs; soldiers ate garlic before going to war and athletes ate garlic in preparation for sporting events.

It’s Good for You—Right?

With such an illustrious history, perhaps it should come as no surprise that garlic really is good for you—though how good for you is a matter of some debate. Web sites and magazines abound with citations of studies that assert that garlic can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, slow the development of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), lower the risk of certain cancers, have an antibacterial effect and more.

But MedlinePlus, a Web site of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, takes a more conservative look at garlic’s benefits. The Web site presents a list of medical uses based on scientific evidence and has graded them on whether the evidence was strong, good, unclear or fair. In most cases, MedlinePlus conceded that additional study on the effects of garlic in humans—not animals—in controlled clinical trials is needed.

An October 2006 UC Berkeley Wellness Letter pointed a similarly critical eye toward garlic pills. The bottom line? “There is no clear evidence that garlic pills are beneficial. No one knows what element in garlic is beneficial, if any. But eat all the garlic you like—it can't hurt, and might help.”

Cooking With Garlic

Eat all the garlic you like, indeed. Just be careful not to burn it: minced garlic generally cooks in under a minute. When selecting garlic, look for large, plump bulbs that are firm to the touch with a tight, papery skin. Avoid the soft, spongy bulbs and the small ones—smaller cloves take more time to peel. What’s Cooking America provides an excellent primer on selecting, storing and cooking with garlic.

Start your culinary foray with garlic bread. As an appetizer, a side dish or even a quick main course (piled high with slabs of fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil), garlic bread is easy to make and fills the kitchen with a mouthwatering aroma as it comes out of the oven. Highly variable and open to interpretation, you’ll find more recipes for garlic bread than you can count. Simply Recipes offers two basic variations.

Maybe the zesty bite of garlic doesn’t appeal to you, even after it’s been sautéed in olive oil or butter and lavished on bread. Never fear: as we mentioned before, garlic has a whole different flavor personality up its papery sleeve. When roasted, the cloves lend a mellow flavor to mashed potatoes, soups, sauces and yes, bread. Gourmet magazine’s Test Kitchen offers a quick video on how to roast garlic.

For even more recipes that feature garlic as the main attraction, the EatingWell Web site is a great find. It even offers an “All Things Garlic Dinner Party Menu” and a “Garlic Cocktail Party Menu.”

The Aftermath

If the idea of a garlic cocktail party menu has you popping the breath mints as you run for your toothbrush, stop right now: garlic breath can only be masked, not eliminated. As Fabrizis Suarez, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, explains, the intestine and liver can’t metabolize some of the sulfur-containing gases that are produced when we eat garlic. “It’s coming from the [gut], not from the mouth,” Suarez explains, “and that is what gives you the odor that you have after you eat garlic.”

Don’t despair, though. There are a few things you can do to contain the dreaded garlic breath. Try chewing on a few sprigs of fresh parsley or on cardamom seeds; eating these naturally fragrant foods puts them at the source of the odor—in your belly—where they can do combat with the garlic. And to get rid of the garlic smell on your hands? Try rubbing your fingers on stainless steel (say, the surface of your sink); the metal oxides break down the oil in your skin, breaking down the garlic residue in the process.

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