Though it may seem as incongruous as Hulk Hogan doing a deodorant commercial, Americans are embracing the distinctive aroma and flavor of garlic. Fresh garlic consumption more than doubled in the past decade. Furthermore, eating the least lovely member of the lily family has become a sign of worldliness and common sense.
Why? Because Europeans and Asians with garlic on their breath have been eating better and living longer than those among us who eschew allium sativum. Garlic now has a place of honor in the kitchens of the nation's most sophisticated restaurants, be they Italian, Chinese or contemporary American.
Furthermore, we all laughed when garlic was merely a charm against the evil eye, demons, witches and vampires. Now it is being promoted as a charm against heart disease and cancer -- and people aren't laughing. They are buying it fresh, in tablets, in capsules. Last year, Health magazine pronounced it "the healthful food enhancer of the moment." The moment has lasted.
"We have seen a qualitative shift in consumer attitudes toward healthy foods," says Karen Caplan, president of Frieda's Finest, a leading distributor of specialty food products. "There is a growing interest in and respect for the notion of food as medicine."
Garlic has been called upon to heal or prevent illness and disease in many cultures over many centuries. Today we know the key to its effectiveness is allicin, a liquid oxide (released when garlic is cut or crushed) that attacks bacteria and fungi. Another compound, ajoene, is credited with being as potent as aspirin at preventing blood clots from forming in humans. The compound was isolated in the mid-'80s by Eric Block, a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York.
Garlic supporters cite studies reported recently in the Harvard Health Letter and Science and Health magazine that show decreases in cholesterol and blood pressure among subjects who took daily garlic supplements. High garlic consumption has been linked to reduced risk of stomach cancer in another study in China cited by the National Cancer Institute. Researchers theorize that the garlic blocks formation of highly carcinogenic nitrosamines and may do so more effectively than vitamin C. No evidence has been published, however, that establishes garlic as a cancer cure.
Nor are there specific recommendations as to how much garlic is good for us. A recent issue of Eating Well magazine quotes a British endocrinologist who estimates that seven to 28 cloves a day would be necessary to trigger significant drops in cholesterol and blood pressure. Unfortunately, in addition to its antisocial side effects, raw garlic in quantity can contribute to stomach upset, digestive-tract irritation and flatulence. There may be garlic-based drugs on the drawing boards, but none are likely to be marketed soon.
What about eating cooked vs. raw garlic?
In her book "The Food Pharmacy," veteran health and nutrition reporter Jean Carper summarized: "Garlic has to be raw to kill bacteria, boost immune function and probably help prevent cancer. But cooked garlic can lower blood cholesterol and help keep blood thin and perform as a decongestant, cough medicine, mucus regulator and bronchitis preventive. Best advice: Eat it both ways."
Raw garlic is the troublemaker when it comes to breath. Combining it with fresh parsley or lemon mitigates the effect, as does eating other strong-flavored foods at the same meal. A determination not to become obsessed with the subject seems to help too.
The first timid steps toward bringing garlic to non-ethnic American dining tables were rubbing salad bowls with garlic and cooking wholecloves in oil until lightly brown before sauteing veal or chicken. In both cases, the clove was discarded.
Now garlic-encrusted pizzas, aioli (a potent garlic mayonnaise) or whole heads of roast garlic appear in restaurants or at parties.
Before jumping into the deep end of the pool, however, keep in mind that cooking garlic can be tricky. Minced garlic will burn almost instantly and produce a penetratingly acrid taste if added to hot oil. Instead, reserve the garlic until after onions or other vegetables have softened, or liquid has been added to the pan.
Whole garlic and cloves have been beneficiaries of the trend toward roasting and grilling. Slow cooking tames the bite and odor of raw garlic, and the longer garlic cooks, the softer and sweeter it becomes. Roasting or poaching single cloves or whole heads, then mashing the peeled cloves, produces a flavorful paste that can be used as a condiment or added to sauces. Whole cloves also can be used as garnish.
Here are some recipes that show garlic's beneficial effect on flavor when used in cooking. The soup, in addition to being delicious, is low in fat.
Yields 4 servings.
2 heads fresh garlic, separated into cloves
4 cups chicken broth
1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled, chopped
3 small red potatoes, 8 ounces total, peeled, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped