Lore has it that garlic hung on a front door kept away vampires, werewolves and evil spirits. But this pungent little bulb with a colorful past deserves more respect than that. Cultivated for thousands of years, it has often been described as nature's most medicinal herb. Roman physicians treated more than 60 ailments, from asthma to cardiovascular problems, with garlic, and in the Victorian era, scientists proved that it had the ability to kill bacteria. Believed to be a "performance-enhancer," garlic was even given to Olympic athletes in ancient Greece. Today, we can thank garlic for a host of health benefits as studies continue to confirm its "magical" powers.
There's mounting evidence that garlic keeps our blood flowing smoothly by preventing plaque buildup in the arteries. Researchers at Loma Linda University in California concluded that garlic extract can protect against the progression of atherosclerosis, a condition caused when cholesterol and other fatty acids gather in the artery walls, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. This close relative to the onion also helps promote heart health in other ways. Dr. Khaled Al-Qattan, associate professor at Kuwait University, says, "There is a strong indication that garlic can not only lower blood pressure but also maintain adequate circulation."
Garlic may also help fend off cancer. Recent studies at the University of Hong Kong have shown that certain compounds in garlic were able to suppress the ability of cancer cells to grow and multiply in the body.
So boost your health and add a punch of flavor to meals by blending garlic into your diet with these simple tips and recipes.
The beauty of garlic is that it comes ready to use: Just slice and sprinkle over your favorite entrée. According to Paolo Lafata, senior executive chef at Olive Garden Italian Restaurants, selecting fresh garlic is crucial. "Look for bulbs that are firm and plump with dry skins, preferably with a hint of purple coloring," he says. "Avoid bulbs with soft or shriveled heads and never take it from the refrigerated section--storing garlic in cool temperatures can lead to water loss, leaving the garlic soft, spongy and shriveled."
The best way to prepare garlic for cooking is to soak the cloves in cold water for an hour and then slip off the skins, says Lafata. Garlic can be kept at room temperature in an open container or cloth sack for a few weeks. For longer storage, place peeled cloves in olive oil and refrigerate.
Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic creates a chemical reaction that releases essential oils and more intense flavor. Crushing is best to achieve health benefits--the process activates plant enzymes that release good-for-you compounds.
To spice your dish, finely chop garlic and add it just before cooking is complete. If you want a sweet, subtle flavor, add whole garlic cloves early in the cooking process and remove them before serving.