Just A Crush
by Mollie Doyle
Last year, before I donned my Halloween costume—fairy queen—and headed out to trick or treat with my family, I planted my first-ever cloves of garlic. As a hedge against my anticipated failure, I used three different varieties from three local farms, fifty cloves total. My expectations were low. (Honestly, I would have been satisfied if 1 of the 50 cloves made it.) So, you can imagine my utter delight when nearly all of the plants began to sprout in November.
Then winter arrived, and the season dragged on with snow and grey and bitter cold. But the tiny shoots persisted, peeking out of the garden’s ever-growing snowdrifts. These bright green sprigs became my little beacons, promises of spring. And when the last of the snow melted in April, the shoots sprang up, bearing scapes in May, which in turn yielded the yummiest pesto ever. On the Fourth of July—the appropriate day to harvest, according to many—I plucked 27 dazzling, white bulbs from the ground. (One variety had suffered during that wet spring, but the other two had thrived!) I hung the garlic by our woodstove and watched the bulbs cure, their soft, white skin turning papery and crisp.
My first meal with the garlic was simple—homegrown tomatoes, basil, and my crushed garlic, tossed with warm noodles, olive oil, a bit of fresh mozzarella, and a pinch of salt. But it was amazing, the depths of the flavor reaching every inch of my mouth. Even better, growing garlic fed me, in one way or another, for an entire year.
As a cook, garlic is as essential to me as salt, lemon, and olive oil. Where would Greek, Italian, Korean, Thai, Egyptian, Indian, Romanian, French (and I could keep going) cuisines be without this one, crucial ingredient? It was that notion that propelled me to plant my own, and, after my own garden-grown success story, delve deeper into investigating the beloved ingredient. It turns out that the plant’s culinary omnipresence is not just about its distinct and delicious flavor: it is also one of the most commonly used healing foods in the world.
Garlic’s use in healing dates to Asia, as far back as 10,000 B. C., to a region dubbed “the garlic crescent” that stretched along the Tien Shan mountain range and west to the Mediterranean. Since, it’s been prescribed internally and externally to treat everything from ear infections to open wounds—not to mention scaring away the occasional vampire. “It is probably no exaggeration to say that many of us are alive today because our ancestors discovered the healing powers of garlic,” wrote Natasha Edwards in her book Garlic, The Mighty Bulb. “The history of garlic’s use as a natural remedy is likely about as long as the history of humans itself… It is only since the appearance of modern antibiotics at the beginning of the 20th century that garlic lost its place in the doctor’s black bag.”
The World Health Organization (WHO), among other leading health institutions, still recommends at least one clove of raw garlic a day to promote general health. And it’s allicin, a biologically active compound that contains sulfur, that compels experts to endorse garlic as such an essential health-promoting food. (Not surprisingly, allicin is also what gives garlic its distinct odor.) First identified by Chester J. Cavallito and John Hays Baily back in 1944, allicin works in the garlic plant as an antibacterial agent. When the plant is attacked by invaders (like soil pathogens or fungi) an enzyme called allinase works with a chemical called allin to produce allicin as a protective measure for the plant. (One way in which the allicin protects the plant is by releasing the distinct odor that we think of, simply, as the smell of garlic.)
But allicin also passes on its strong antibacterial-fighting properties to its human consumer—good news for those of us that rely on its flavor.
And with every passing year, doctors and scientists seem to discover more evidence of how garlic’s enzymes support nearly every system in our bodies—immune, cardiovascular, digestive—our lungs and our skin.
As allicin is released only when the membrane of the plant is disrupted, it’s essential to crush or chop your cloves before eating them in order to achieve their full health effects. Studies show that raw, chopped or crushed garlic provides the most potent health potion—so getting your clove-a-day might be best achieved raw in salsas, pestos, or dressings. And cooking garlic too soon has the potential to denature the allinase that catalyzes the production of allicin—essentially rendering your cooked garlic devoid of nutrition. But new studies suggest that allowing chopped or crushed cloves to sit out for 15 minutes before being cooked will allow the plant to go through the complete chemical process, producing the coveted allicin, a relatively heat-stable enzyme, and essentially preserving its health effects. So, health rule number one when sautéing up a few cloves for tonight’s dish: plan ahead to give your garlic some time to sit.
As one can imagine, there are major debates over which garlic plants are best. You might not know it from your supermarket shelves, but there are more than 500 varieties of garlic, varying in size, color, flavor, and even in ease of peeling. Are all of these cloves created equal? Not exactly, I discovered. Taste, as we all know, is the subjective ingredient, and might be the deciding factor for many cooks. But in terms of health? It’s the cold-hardy plants, like the ones that survived last year’s harsh winter in my garden, that maintain their pathogen-fighting properties and provide us with the ideal, health-promoting cloves.
Local garlic also tends to be superior garlic, I’ve discovered. Our bodies are fortified by food grown in the regions that we live in. Our food’s ability to flourish in the climate that we live in—with the same temperatures and the same pathogens—strengthens our own ability to negotiate our environment. Susan Huck at the Allen Farm and Caitlin Jones at Mermaid Farm, among others, grow some of the most delicious and beautiful Island garlic around. But if you’re feeling up to a challenge, my garlic Rx for you is this: Grow your own, right now. Garlic is best planted in late autumn, when the ground is about 50 degrees or below, and requires little expertise and minimal care. Trust me—there is as much healing in the sowing and reaping as in the eating.