The health benefits of garlic have long been the stuff of legend—and superstition. While garlic probably won’t save you from blood-thirsty vampires, it might help ward off a number of everyday evils, from the common cold to cancer.
The first mentions of garlic’s medicinal qualities date back to 2500 B.C., when it was fed to slaves building the Egyptian pyramids to increase their stamina and protect them from disease. Over the past 20 years, a number of studies suggest that garlic may indeed reduce the risk of developing several types of cancer, especially ones of the digestive tract. For example, findings from the Iowa Women’s Health Study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that women who consumed the highest amounts of garlic had a 50 percent lower risk of colon cancer compared with women who had the lowest level of garlic consumption. Garlic’s “magic” medicinal ingredient is thought to be allicin, the phytochemical that gives the plant its pungent smell and packs a powerful antibacterial and antiviral punch.
What’s really great about garlic, though, is that it may be the most flavorful medicine you’ll ever take. A staple of Mediterranean and Asian cuisines, garlic goes well with seafood, pasta, most vegetables, and legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas. But just as garlic can overpower bacteria, it can also overpower a dish. One of the keys to satisfying garlic cookery is staying within your aromatic comfort zone. A time-tested trick for toning down garlic’s smell in a dish and on your breath afterward is to combine it with copious amounts of fresh, raw herbs such as parsley and basil, whose chlorophyll has a deodorizing effect. With the odor neutralized, the vampires won’t be repulsed—but neither will your dinner date!
Garlic is easy to grow outdoors in most climates, and autumn is the best time for planting. Follow these tips for the best chance of success.
■ Plant garlic six to eight weeks before the ground freezes. Garlic likes full sun and loamy, well-drained soil.
■ Buy bulbs from a grower, seed supplier or at the farmers market; bulbs should be firm with no dark spots or mold.
■ Just before planting, carefully separate the bulbs into cloves by severing the bulb wrapper just above the cloves around the stem. Peel the wrapper away, then separate the cloves, being careful not to damage the root plate at the base (wherever the root plate is broken or damaged, roots cannot form).
■ Plant individual cloves about 11⁄2 to 2 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart with the pointed end up and the root end down.
■ Mulch immediately to help prevent soil erosion and reduce weeds.
■ Garlic takes about nine months to mature and should be kept well weeded and watered. However, do not overwater or fertilize during the last month in the ground (usually June, July or August, depending on climate).
■ When garlic leaves begin to turn yellow and wither, keep an eye out. It’s time to harvest when about half of them are still green and standing upright.
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