Garlic: Some History & Tips for Growing & Cooking

By Marilyn Raff: Cooking gadgets are close to my heart. My garlic press is one of few items not lost after 50 years of marriage! (Both are sturdy and need daily attention.) Lately, I’ve learned other methods to mince and prepare this potent herb in savory dishes, but first some history.

Garlic is native to the steppes of central Asia and over time spread further to the Middle East. It was one of the first herbs to be cultivated and has been in use since the beginning of recorded history. During the Middle Ages, it was used mostly for medicinal and magical purposes.


In ancient Egypt people ate garlic in great quantity as it was believed to hold major healing powers and protect against the plague and supernatural evils. Garlic has been found in Egyptian pyramids, in monasteries, and ancient Greek temples. Great myths surround garlic. It was believed to prevent people from being turned into vampires, and to be able to find and stop them. It was common to stuff garlic cloves into the nose, mouth, and ears of corpses to keep evil out.


Onions were cultivated along the banks of the Nile over five thousand years ago and other ancient records state that large sums of money were paid to supply workers with onions, garlic, and radishes as they slaved on the Great Pyramids.


Pharaoh Tutankhamen, (“King Tut”), reigned over 2,100 years ago. When archaeologists opened his tomb nearly 75 years ago they discovered gold pieces, precious gems, statuary, and mummified cats to keep him company in the afterlife – along with perfectly preserved heads of garlic!


The Romans, like the Greeks, honored garlic, certain that it gave their soldiers strength and courage for war. So along with planting roses and violets around their fortresses, warriors planted garlic.


Though medicinal and health uses of garlic have faded some in recent decades, overtaken by its popularity in cooking, I know people who eat fresh garlic at the first sign of a cold and herbalists who recommend it for a bronchial infection.

Varieties for Colorado, Growing & Cooking Tips

There are hundreds of varieties of garlic which divide into 2 subspecies, softneck – A. sativium and hardneck, A. sativium var. ophioscorodon. Softneck is the one mostly sold in grocery stores because of its long shelf life, however, it’s not as flavorful.

It often has more cloves, and a mild flavor. The hardneck variety performs well in Northern states. Once harvested, store in a cool spot, not refrigerated, which causes garlic to sprout, and taste bitter.

In a garden, garlic deters pests, like aphids, and attracts beneficial insects, like bees. Be aware that garlic is poisonous to cats and dogs, depending on the amount digested.


Plant in late September, October, or early November in full sun or just a bit of shade, four inches apart, two inches deep, in well composted soil with sharp drainage. Separate bulbs into individual cloves and plant pointy tip up, root end down. Keep well weeded and water regularly to keep slightly moist, but not wet. In winter, water during dry spells. The garlic will grow 18-24 inches tall. Harvest mid-July, when about half of the long stems have turned brown and flop. Two weeks before harvesting discontinue watering to begin the dormancy and curing process. If using hardneck varieties another good indicator is to harvest roughly 1-2 weeks after the curlicue scapes appear. Dig carefully and deep. Some people remove the scapes to redirect energy into the bulb. Scapes are useful in cooking, but they taste strong.


Once the garlic is out of the ground, carefully brush off clinging soil and debris. Let the garlic dry completely outside in a shady spot for two to three weeks. This curing process is important since it improves flavor and storage time. Ideally, store bulbs around 60 degrees, but average home temperatures work fine. Bulbs can be stored in an airy netting bag, or on an open shelf, where there is good circulation. you can expect softneck varieties to last 6-8 months, 4-6 months for hardneck varieties.


GREEN SAUCE RECIPE:

1 cup packed basil leaves, ½ cup packed parsley leaves, ½ cup chopped chives, 2 garlic cloves peeled and smashed, black pepper to taste, ¼ cup sour cream or Greek yogurt, 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 ½ tsp. grated lemon zest, ¼ to ½ tsp salt.

Step 1– place herbs, garlic and pepper in blender or food processor, or mix well by hand. Add yogurt and puree until smooth, or stir by hand. Add olive oil slowly as the motor runs, pulse in lemon zest and salt. To complete by hand, stir in slowly and gradually. Make personal salt and flavoring adjustment. As expert chefs recommend, taste, taste, taste along the way.

This dressing will keep for 5 days, or spoon over roasted chicken, sausage, lamb and vegetables. It’s also good as a marinade, or even as an appetizer dip with chips and raw vegetables. Spread it on meat, cheese, tomato and vegetable sandwiches.

To Harness the Flavor of Garlic

The more you break down a garlic clove, whether to chop, mince, slice, or crush, the more its complex and pungent flavor is released. The flavor goes from mild (cut in half or thickly sliced) to assertive and sharp, once it’s smashed into a paste with a mortar and pestle or a chef’s knife. Use salt with the mortar and pestle to prevent the peeled garlic from sliding around in the bowl.

Marilyn Raff is a gardener, garden author, poet, and inspired cook who lives in Denver. For more tips and recipes visit www.marilynraff.com. See the online edition of this article at www.coloradogardener.com for Marilyn’s tasty Infused Garlic with Pork & Vegetables recipe.