Celebrating garlic

Out of all the ‘national days’ and ‘awareness’ weeks that pop up during the year, National Garlic Day (19th April) is one that really is worth celebrating. As well as adding flavour and pungency to even the most simplest of dishes, this small, stinky bulb also has some wonderful medicinal properties too. Food as medicine is certainly true when it comes to garlic!

Garlic is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, with Sanskrit records documenting its use 5000 year ago. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian also document it’s use, and it has been used around the world to treat coughs, colds, dysentery, heart disease and toothache to name a few. And that’s not forgetting it’s magical powers to ward off vampires – or at least a bad date! One of my books about food quotes this 17th century poem by Sir John Harrington about the pros and cons of garlic, although I’m not sure why it ‘maketh men wink’!

There is so much to write about garlic, more for a book than a blog post. Instead, I want to share a couple of top tips about making the most of garlic’s beneficial properties, as well as a couple of alternative ways to use it in cooking plant based dishes to add more flavour and depth.

Garlic has a multitude of different health-giving active compounds that work together. Many of these are sulphur-containing compound which activate enzyme functions within the body. One particularly beneficial substance is alliinase (yes, two i’s!), an enzyme that is released when a garlic clove is crushed. This aids the formation of allicin, one of the active organo-sulphur compounds in garlic, that is associated with many of garlic’s healthy attributes, as well as the recognisably pungent garlic aroma.

Cooking for more than a few minutes can kill off the alliinase and therefore reduce the health giving properties within the garlic, so a top tip is to crush garlic and leave it to stand for 10 minutes before frying or boiling in a sauce to enable the alliinase to do it’s job and activate the allicin before it’s killed off.  It seems that baking, however, keeps many of the active properties intact – research done in 2007 found that baking did not significantly affect it’s anti-clotting properties, although over cooking did. This is good news for those who find raw garlic rather indigestible but still want to get the goodness in.

Amongst its many medicinal uses, raw garlic has been shown to be effective in the treatment of cancers, particularly in the digestive system. It is also has anti-fungal effects and can be used to treat candida infections. This requires more than your normal clove in a pasta sauce though, and often adding garlic into a green juice is recommended. Not that I have tried this as yet, I’m not that brave! But my trusty healing foods encyclopaedia suggests wrapping the garlic up in a green vegetable like parsley. The cloves are juiced more effectively, and this also helps reduce some of the after odour, as the chlorophyll in the greens binds up some of the sulphurous compounds. Good to know if you’re planning on trying it and socialising the same day!

I use a lot of garlic in my recipes, raw and cooked, as it’s a great way to infuse flavour. To add extra depth, I often add roasted garlic. Roasting is easy to do and, as we have seen above, preserves it’s medicinal properties. Just wrap a clove or two up in tin foil and pop it in the oven for 15 minutes or so whilst you are cooking something else – you’ll know when it’s ready as delicious, garlicky wafts start emanating out of the oven! Leave to cool then wrap in clean foil or baking paper and keep in the fridge until you want to use it. Add it to dips, plant based patés, sauces, mashed veggies – even spread it directly on toast, it’s delicious! The flavour is sweeter, less pungent and doesn’t linger in the the same way as raw.

The other way of infusing strong flavour into dishes is to use smoked garlic. If you haven’t already done so, this is really worth a go – but be careful, it’s powerful stuff and will create a flavour explosion with only a small amount. Previously I have bought mine from farm shops (if you’re ever visiting the Isle of Wight, the Garlic Farm is amazing and has some wonderful smoked garlic), although I did see it recently in my local supermarket as well. I have some garlic growing in my little veg patch, and want to smoke my own, but think I’ll wait until BBQ season to give it a go, as creating an indoor smoker looks like a major fire hazard!

So enjoy National Garlic Day, and don’t forget to crush your garlic and leave it to activate before cooking. And if you happen to have a friend who has their own smoker in their shed, then let me know!

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