Garlic gets a garland and round of applause

8/19/04 Washington Post Service

By Joel M. Lerner

The result of a little-heralded election earlier this year will be welcome to those of all parties, and especially to gardeners and gourmets: The International Herb Association, based in Jacksonville and the Herb Society of America, based in Kirtland, Ohio, have voted garlic the herb of the year for 2004.

While garlic may be a more controversial choice than last year's winner, basil, its fans will be delighted that this powerful and versatile plant is getting the attention it deserves.

Garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians worshiped it and left clay images of it in tombs. It has always been popular for both culinary and medicinal uses. Recent research is confirming what people have always believed -- that garlic is both tasty and good for you. Garlic has been shown to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, stimulate the immune system, and inhibit the growth of intestinal parasites. The sulfur compounds in garlic (which give it its potent aroma) are antioxidants that protect cell membranes and DNA.

Some people even swear by garlic's ability to discourage mosquitoes. Commercial preparations such as Mosquito Barrier and Garlic Gard are sprays for yard and garden. Eating garlic or rubbing it on the skin are said to discourage mosquitoes from biting.

When it comes to kitchen uses, garlic, which might have originated in Central Asia, is generally associated with Mediterranean cooking. There are few foods that garlic can't enhance. It helps out salads, spreads, dips, marinades and sauces, pasta and pickles. It's used to flavor chicken, lamb, seafood, veal and pork, and it's terrific in mashed potatoes. Roast garlic is even touted as giving a ''nutty'' flavor to ice cream and brownies. The strongest flavor comes from fresh raw garlic cut into tiny pieces, the mildest from bulbs roasted in olive oil. (A few people are allergic to garlic. Eating it gives them a mild to strong respiratory or digestive reaction, and it can cause burning or blistering of skin if applied topically.)

Garlic is a member of the lily family, the alliums, and is related to shallots, leeks and onions. There are hundreds of varieties, but the most common one, the one that's in all the grocery stores, is Allium sativum var. sativum, or softneck garlic. It's most widespread because it's the easiest to grow and keeps longer than hardneck garlic (var. ophioscorodon), which can be found at festivals and online.