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Getting the facts about the benefits of garlic

By Peggy Walker, R.D.

Today’s Special

Let’s talk about garlic.  I love food science.

Mythical garlic.  The most classic myth is that garlic can stop vampires…it works in movies.  European folklore claimed that garlic could ward off the “evil eye.”  Roman history records that soldiers ate garlic for inspiration and courage.  And Egyptian slaves were fed garlic to make them stronger workers.  Wonder why?

Healthy garlic.  Through the years garlic has also been credited with a variety of health benefits.  Considered an herbal “wonder drug,” garlic has a reputation for preventing everything from the common cold to acne!   More recent cancer research indicates that men who eat even less than a clove of garlic a day cut their risk of prostate cancer in half compared to men who don’t.  And more studies have linked garlic consumption to the prevention of colon, stomach and possibly breast cancers.

Powerful garlic.  If you aren’t a garlic lover, you’ll be glad to know that the entire garlic and onion family contains cancer-fighting compounds.  While garlic, onions, scallions and leeks differ slightly, all these foods have compounds that seem to block cancer-promoting enzymes, promote DNA repair and regulate the cell life cycle.

Misunderstood garlic.  Along with the facts there are many misconceptions about garlic, too.  One is that it must be eaten raw to be beneficial.  It is true that when garlic is cooked immediately after peeling, certain enzymes are inactivated and cancer-fighting benefits are lost.  However, if you peel and chop garlic, letting it rest 15 minutes before cooking it, the full benefits remain.

Aromatic garlic.  There’s a big difference between mincing, pressing and slicing.  The process you use to prepare garlic does make a difference in its flavor and aroma.  Raw garlic cloves contain a sulfur-based compound called alliin and an enzyme called allicinase.  I find this so interesting… these two compounds are not in contact in raw garlic, which is why a head of unpeeled garlic has almost no smell. When cut, the enzyme comes into contact with the alliin and converts it to allicin, the very pungent compound that gives garlic its identifying aroma and taste.

It’s-all-in-how-you-slice-it garlic.  When you slice garlic, only a small amount of enzyme and sulfur-compound come into contact with each other, so only a small amount of allicin is produced. The result is a mild garlic flavor. When you mince garlic, however, more allicin is produced because there’s more contact between the sulfur-compound and the enzyme. More allicin means more aroma and flavor.

For the strongest garlic flavor, put the cloves through a press or mince them into a smooth paste. Chopped garlic has a moderate amount of flavor and aroma, while sliced garlic has the least. Because heat breaks down the alliinase, roasting or toasting garlic cloves before adding them to a dish will pretty much eliminate the development of any harsh garlic flavor.  Now you know!

Storing garlic.  When selecting fresh garlic, look for firm, large-cloved bulbs in which the outer skin is tight, unbroken and free of soft spots.  Store fresh garlic in a cool, dry place that allows good air circulation.  A mesh bag or specially designed, covered terra-cotta jar with holes in the sides works well.  Do not store garlic in plastic bags or sealed containers, as this tends to cause the garlic to wither and rot.  Properly stored, most garlic bulbs can last for up to six months in cool room temperatures.

Safe garlic.  Many people love the taste of garlic and oil mixtures, especially for dipping bread.  Be aware, though, that homemade garlic-in-oil mixtures can be deadly.

When they remain on the table too long or are stored at warm room temperatures homemade garlic-in-oil mixtures provide the perfect conditions for the botulism toxin to grow: low acidity, moisture and a warm temperature in an air-free solution.  Commercially prepared garlic-in-oil mixtures are processed under strict guidelines with an acid ingredient added in a lengthy and highly variable process that is very difficult to reproduce at home.

So, make garlic-in-oil mixtures with caution and refrigerate promptly.   Discard any leftover garlic-in-oil mixtures after two hours at room temperature, even if salt and acid(s) are added.   Homemade garlic-in-oil is a safe product it is used right away or refrigerated it to use within a week.

Get the most out of garlic … get a garlic press.

Recipe of the Week

Garlic Spiked Broccoli

Lots of flavor here. 

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

2 -3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2 cups sliced button or cremini mushrooms

4 cups chopped fresh broccoli

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

Kosher salt and freshly grated whole peppercorns, to taste

Heat oil carefully in large skillet over medium heat.  Add garlic, sauté 1 minute…DO NOT BURN. Add mushrooms, sauté until they release their liquid, add broccoli and rosemary.   Continue to sauté for 3 – 5 minutes more or until broccoli is crisp tender.  Season with salt and pepper as desired.

Serving suggestion:  serve with a grilled or roasted meat, mac & cheese, sliced fresh tomatoes and dinner rolls.