You may have heard that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But did you know that a clove of garlic a day may do much better? It’s true. Garlic does much more than fight off vampires. An old Welsh saying instructs: “Eat leeks in March and garlic in May, then the rest of the year, your doctor can play.”
While some find the strong-smelling food offensive, others praise the culinary herb’s health and flavor-enhancing powers. Many have memories of grandparents slicing raw garlic and eating it with bread or cheese. In my own family, I’ve heard that my great-grandmother cured bronchitis by making the sick relative eat an entire head of garlic.
Since the dawn of civilization, garlic has been used to cure various illnesses in Egypt, China and Mesopotamia. In 3000 BC, the Babylonians were already using garlic. In India, Sanskrit records reveal that garlic remedies were common 5,000 years ago. The Codex Ebers, an Egyptian papyrus from 1550 BC and the oldest known medical text, contained 22 garlic recipes to treat problems from heart disease to parasites and intestinal tumors. In 77 AD, Pliny the Elder mentioned 61 ailments treated with garlic in his Naturalis Historia. Throughout the ancient world garlic was known as both an important health ally and a great flavoring for food.
In 1858, Louis Pasteur demonstrated garlic’s antibacterial properties when he noted that bacteria could be killed by dousing with garlic. Albert Schweitzer used garlic to treat cholera and typhus. During the world wars, battle wounds were treated with garlic.
More than 1,000 published medical studies attest to garlic’s health benefits, from immune support to cardiovascular health. Allium sativum has been proven to help lower cholesterol. And it is an important weapon in the battle against many pathogens, including the viruses that cause colds and flu.
Today, we know that garlic has immune-boosting, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal effects. These come from more than 33 active sulfur-containing compounds, especially alliin. When garlic is crushed, alliin is converted to allicin, which is responsible for garlic’s characteristic odor and many of its health benefits, especially combating bacteria, viruses, fungi and intestinal parasites.
Other compounds in garlic include organosulfides, diallyl sulfide and selenium. These have been shown to increase the activity of immune cells that fight cancer. Studies have shown that eating garlic regularly may be effective against colon, liver, stomach, breast and prostate cancers.
Other medical studies have shown that regular consumption of garlic and onions helps lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and prevents dangerous blood clotting. These effects are attributed to the compound allyl mercaptan. Two cloves of garlic per day may have similar effects as cholesterol-lowering medications. Ajoene is a compound in garlic that prevents blood clots and acts as a blood thinner. Garlic also contains vitamins B and C. It is a mini-storehouse of minerals, including phosphorus, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese and potassium and selenium.
For fighting pathogens like viruses, bacteria and fungus, only raw garlic will do. The fresh clove must be crushed or chopped in order to release the enzyme alliinase which becomes allicin. Allicin is inactivated when garlic is cooked. The medieval abbess St. Hildegarde von Bingen knew this. She wrote, “It ought to be eaten uncooked because if it is cooked, its strength is lost.” Cooked garlic retains its cardiovascular, anti-cancer and decongestive benefits.
James North, a microbiologist at Brigham Young University, recommends eating garlic when you feel a sore throat coming on to prevent onset of illness. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona College of Medicine and author of Natural Health, Natural Medicine advises people with chronic or recurrent infections to eat two cloves of raw garlic each day. In his book, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, Jonny Bowden calls garlic “a global remedy” and “one of the oldest medicinal foods on earth.”
Of course, garlic is also used worldwide for the flavor it adds to food. From Italy and Greece to the Middle East and the Orient, garlic is an essential ingredient used for seasoning meats, soups and stews, entrees, cooked vegetables, sauces, dips and all types of salads. Jews and Italians introduced their garlicky cuisines to the New World. Salad dressings, mayonnaise (aioli), sauces and dips all benefit from garlic.
Almost every Italian dish — from tomato sauce to pesto to caponata to soups like minestrone and Tuscan bean — contains garlic. So does Middle Eastern hummus, Korean kimchee, kosher pickles, Mexican guacamole, Greek skordalia, Spanish romesco, Moroccan harissa.
When cooking a roast, use a sharp knife to cut slits in the pork or beef before putting it in the oven. Insert slivers of garlic to season the meat while it cooks.
Cooked garlic provides depth and enhances the flavor. Garlic cooks quickly in oil, so use low or medium heat and cook for a short time — you don’t want to burn or brown it.
When buying garlic, feel the bulb. It should be solid and firm, not dried out or airy. The skin should be tight and free of soft spots. Store garlic at room temperature with plenty of air circulation — do not refrigerate or cover in plastic; this promotes mold. The mesh bags onions come in are great for storing garlic.
Here are a couple recipes that use garlic.
Presto pesto pasta
Cook 1/4 pound pasta according to package directions. Drain.
For the pesto:
1 cup fresh herbs — basil, arugula, dandelion greens or spinach
2 garlic cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup nuts (walnuts, cashews, etc.)
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup olive oil
Place everything in food processor and process until smooth. Taste, and adjust seasonings. You may want to add a little lemon juice.
Stir pesto into hot, drained pasta. Serve with a salad of fresh tossed greens.
Option: You may also stir in cooked veggies — like green beans, broccoli or zucchini — or canned beans like garbanzos, for a more complete meal.
Warm or cold bean salad
2 cups steamed green beans
1 cup cooked or canned garbanzo beans or navy beans
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 or 2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh sage and/or parsley, chopped, for garnish
1/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Lightly steam green beans.
In bowl, combine green beans and garbanzo beans. Sprinkle with salt and toss.
Heat olive oil; add garlic; cook one minute. Pour over beans, and toss again.
Chop parsley and sage. Add and toss again.
Garnish with crumbled feta cheese.
Other optional ingredients — boiled potatoes; diced yellow or orange bell pepper; sweet onion or scallions
This makes a nice side dish (warm) or salad (room temperature or chilled).
Serves 2 to 3.
Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook as words are my world.