If you understand the uses of garlic, you understand 50% of all herbal medicine. ~ Steven Foster
July demarks garlic season at Round the Bend Farm (RTB). This is a time for the fall-planted crop to be harvested, hung to dry, and garlic scapes enjoyed until the bulbs themselves harden off.
Garlic is a member of the Lily family and is a cousin to leeks, chives, and onions. Its health benefits are legendary. From antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal benefits to its ability to stimulate our immune systems, lower cholesterol and reduce high blood pressure, it has been used throughout history for its many health and medicinal properties.
As a novice chef of Italian/Lebanese decent, I rarely cook a meal that does not begin with the holy grail of garlic, onion, and olive oil. Yet, in my recent research about garlic, I learned some pretty important steps one can take to maximize the health benefits of cooking with garlic.
Allicin is the compound in garlic that contains the potent medicinal properties for which this herb is known. It is also what gives garlic its strong odor and flavor. Chopping or crushing garlic cloves stimulates the enzymatic activity that triggers the phytonutrient alliin into allicin. In addition to chopping or crushing the garlic to activate this process, giving your garlic a 5-10 minute rest period before eating, cooking, or adding it into an acidic ingredient, like lemon juice continues to allow the allinase enzyme to produce the unique set of cancer-fighting sulfur compounds that help to protect us against oxidative stress and inflammation. In reality, there are more than one hundred compounds in garlic that give it its healing and medicinal properties.
As I stated earlier, most meals in my kitchen begin with the slow sauté of onions till they become translucent. Garlic is then added before continuing with whatever other ingredients are being prepared. However, with this new understanding about how to extract garlic’s fullest potential and nutritional benefits, I will be altering my cooking strategy. It is advised that in order to retain flavor and nutrition, garlic should be added at the end of the cooking process so that it is exposed to heat for as little time as possible, 5-15 minutes is the general recommendation.
When buying garlic always purchase fresh plump heads with firm cloves and a creamy white to purplish-tinged skin. When garlic is in season and harvested locally, purchase it in abundance from your local farmer or farmers market. Garlic will keep well in an open container that is kept in a cool, dark, dry environment. Another way to store garlic for longer is to peel a bunch of cloves and then immerse them in a brine solution or in apple cider vinegar to prolong its shelf life. Pull out cloves and use in your recipes just as you would with the fresh cloves. (Note: If I am using garlic that was in a brine solution, I do limit the addition of salt in the recipe.)
At RTB, we especially love plants in which you can eat the whole of its parts; leaving behind zero-waste. Garlic is one of the best for this. In the early spring, green garlic is harvested before the garlic plant begins to form cloves. Farmer’s usually pull green garlic in an effort to thin a row. Some of you may have received this as part of your CSA shares and didn’t know what to do with them. Green garlic resembles a scallion but with a tinge of pink on the bulb end. They are great added to salads, soups and sauces. Personally, I like to drizzle them with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and then throw them on the grill for 2-3 minutes. Once you remove them from the heat, squeeze a fresh lime over them and enjoy!
Then there are the garlic scapes. These are the “flower stalks” of hardneck garlic plants. They are usually cut off so the plant can divert its energy into the growing of a larger garlic bulb. Garlic scapes are delicious and can be used in a variety of recipes as you would use garlic or scallions. Here on the farm we make large batches of Garlic Scape Pesto (recipe below) to have on hand in all sorts of dishes and as a delicious spread. It can even replace tomato sauce on fresh homemade pizza!
Garlic Scape Pesto:
2 cups garlic scapes, chopped
½-1 cup of olive oil
Pulse the chopped garlic scapes in a food processor, slowly add the olive oil. Add walnuts, sunflower seeds or pinenuts for an extra boost of protein and a creamier texture. You can also add parmesan if you have some on hand. Salt to taste.