Whether bruised, crushed, sliced or whole, garlic provides much of the distinct taste of the Mediterranean diet. However, the pungent, bulbous, cultivated perennial is far more than just a flavor enhancer.
Garlic's reputation as a medicinal herb dates back thousands of years, true to the age-old philosophy that your food should be your medicine and your medicine should be your food. Sources ranging from grandmothers to scientists have attributed to garlic such powers as lowering cholesterol, boosting the immune system, fighting cancer and treating infectious diseases and hypertension.
"Garlic is one of the most studied chemical compounds from a food source," said Dr. Paul LaChance, chairman, food science department, Rutgers University. LaChance added that more than 1,200 papers on garlic's health-protective effects have been published since the 1950s —more than 500 of those, during the past decade.
It's little wonder that the Mediterranean diet—rich in garlic as well as olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains—is considered one of the world's healthiest. Garlic alone contains 17 amino acids (including all the essential ones), calcium, copper, iron potassium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, B1 and C.
Garlic also contains sulfur compounds, which create the pungent aroma that secretes from the lungs and skin of those who eat the herb. It may have been this strong odor that traditionally made garlic a peasant spice, eschewed by nobility in many civilizations.
"Do not eat garlic or onions, for their smell will reveal that you are a peasant," said Cervantes in Don Quixote.
"Eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath," added Shakespeare, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Today, many who want the flavor and health benefits of garlic have learned to live with the odor, while others continue to search for ways to sweeten garlic-tainted breath.
"It has also been claimed that eating lost of garlic reduces the smell—that it is only the person who eats the occasional bit of garlic who gets 'smelly' breath. This is a remedy for garlic addicts," said author Jackie French, in her Book of Garlic.
"It is mostly raw garlic in salads or semi-raw garlic in garlic bread that the breath. Cooked garlic is much sweeter and less pungent" French added. "Perhaps the final remedy is to simply encourage everyone to eat a lot of garlic so that no one notices the odor."
Garlic powder is increasingly recognized as an alternative to fresh garlic and supplements. Just 1/3 teaspoon of powder provides a dose of allicin—the cardio-protective chemical found in crushed garlic—as strong as the most potent supplements.
Garlic's ability to provide championship strength, courage and endurance to those who eat it, as believed by ancient Greek Olympians, may be questioned. But traditional cooking a with garlic and olive oil—from pasta dishes to grilling to salads—is a proven winning combination.
Chef Randall Colman is a Chef Instructor/Associate Professor at the Sullivan County Community College, Loch Sheldrake, NY and co-owner of the Inn Between Restaurant, Syracuse, NY.
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the carrots, garlic, olive oil and lemon in a shallow baking dish. Stir to blend. Bake, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender and lightly browned, about 45 minutes. Add the olives. Bake 10 minutes longer.
Nutritional Information Per Serving:
This page originally published as a FoodDay article in 1997.
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This page modified February 2007
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