going with GARLIC

The herb's popularity is increasing as Americans turn to Latin and Mediterranean cuisine.

July 20, 2005|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

Everything tastes better with garlic. For proof, look no further than the cookbooks that feature recipes for garlic martinis and garlic ice cream.

And this is the time of year to celebrate "the stinking rose." July is harvest time for garlic, and there are festivals from Pennsylvania to California that rival any for apples, seafood or cherry blossoms.

"The No. 1 reason for garlic's popularity has got to be the flavor it delivers," said Carol Lazzeri-Casey, author of There's No Such Thing As Too Much Garlic (AuthorHouse, 2005, $14).

Sliced, minced, chopped, roasted, sauteed. Each cooking method releases from garlic a different kind of taste.

And cooks are free to experiment with garlic in ways almost no other herb would tolerate: one clove wiped around the inside of a salad bowl or 40 whole cloves in a roasted chicken, and everything in between.

"Garlic is a really personal thing," Lazzeri-Casey said. "You can add it as you go and keep tasting. When you get the flavor you want, you stop."

Americans have added almost 10 times the amount of garlic to their diets in the last couple of decades - from less than a third of a pound a year in the early 1970s to more than 3 pounds a year by the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Look at the food we are eating," said Aliza Green, author of Field Guide to Produce (Quirk Books, 2004, $14.95).

"There has been an explosion in Asian cooking, and they love garlic. Latin American food used to be only in the West and Southwest, and now it is all over. Because of their emphasis on beans, they use a ton of garlic.

"And Mediterranean, whether it is Italian, Spanish or Southern French or Moroccan," she said.

"The British and the Germans are the only ones who don't use garlic at all."

Garlic has a rich history outside the cookbooks. It is said to have sprung up under the feet of Satan as he left the Garden of Eden. Ancient societies valued it for what they saw as its curative powers, a reputation that persists today, despite conflicting medical research.

Greeks and Romans considered it a strengthening food, ideal for workers, soldiers and oarsmen, but the upper classes objected to its smell and the priests objected to its reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Garlic spread from Asia to Europe during the Crusades, and it was considered protective against the plague as well as possession by devils. Garlic can safely be credited with driving vampires into extinction.

A member of the onion family, garlic shares with onions the fact that it does not give up its powerful flavor and aroma until its skin is pierced, releasing a reaction between enzymes without and within.

And, like onion, its aroma and flavor mellow with cooking and can become almost sweet. But if added early in cooking, as in a marinade or dressing, the flavor can be powerful.

"Garlic is the spice of life and my herb of choice," said Sara Perry, author of - you guessed it - a cookbook titled, Everything Tastes Better With Garlic (Chronicle Books, 2004, $18.95).

Its versatility is remarkable. Whole cloves can be inserted into meat before roasting, especially lamb, or they can be roasted alongside poultry or vegetables.

Garlic can be rubbed on bread or on the surface of a salad bowl or a pan, and chopped or crushed to flavor butter, dressings, aiolis, pestos or dips.

Garlic, whole, sliced or minced, can be sauteed with a little oil or butter in the first stages of a stew, sauce or braised dish.

But perhaps the most satisfying way to enjoy garlic is after the entire bulb has been smothered in olive oil and roasted in a covered dish in a slow oven for about an hour. The warm, sweet, creamy meat of the garlic is then squeezed from the cloves and spread on crusty bread.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, garlic has come close to penetrating nearly every kitchen in the world. The raging popularity of garlic mashed potatoes might be the only proof needed of that.

"I grew up in the Midwest, and I didn't taste garlic until I was 17 and had dinner in a little Italian restaurant," said Victoria Renoux, author of For the Love of Garlic: The Complete Guide to Garlic Cuisine (Square One, 2005, $13.95).

In her book, she writes that soldiers from World War II no doubt returned from Europe with a taste for garlic, and immigrants brought garlic-rich cuisine to this country.

But much of the credit might belong to Julia Child and James Beard, whose cookbooks, published in the 1960s, helped "bring the nation out of its dismal blandness by fearlessly introducing such dishes as garlic chicken with 40 cloves," according to Renoux.

Americans, who have embraced the neglected kitchen arts with a new earnestness, are clearly unafraid of garlic, comfortable now with its potency.

"And I think it is part of our return to healthy eating," said Renoux, a natural-food cook.

Garlic is reputed to thin the blood, preventing heart attacks and strokes. It is supposed to prevent cancer as well as kill bacteria, fungus and viruses.

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