That stinky bulb of garlic, yes -the one that gives you the dreaded “garlic breath” – plays a major role in Israeli cuisine. Ubiquitous in Israeli supermarkets, green grocers, and open air markets, heads (bulbs) of garlic are sold loose, in net bags, and in sealed nylon bags. While most of us generally think that “garlic is garlic”, in reality there is a difference between each of these options. Here’s what you need to know to make an educated purchase and what to do with it when you get home.
Fresh Israeli garlic, of the Rocambole variety with which we are most familiar here, has a purplish color. It becomes available in the marketplace for a few short weeks beginning in late March, generally several weeks before Passover. The bulbs are sold with and without their long leaves, but always with their roots.
Although not as abundant out of season, Israeli garlic can be found during the year in many shops, either in nylon bags containing several heads of garlic or sometimes as loose heads. It may have been dried or just stored and you should be careful about what you are buying. You are better off buying loose heads of garlic when possible since they can be checked for freshness.
Epicurious, in their article How to buy and store garlic, explains that in order to buy the freshest heads possible, you should pick up the bulb and squeeze it lightly to make sure that the outside cloves are neither too soft or too dry. They should feel firm, not hollow or dehydrated. Sprouted cloves are a sign that the garlic is old.
You can store garlic by keeping it in a cool, dry place, to avoid moisture so that the cloves don’t develop mold and rot. For this reason you do not keep your garlic in the refrigerator. Garlic can be kept on the counter with other dry produce such as onions, or even in a paper bag in a dark cabinet. If your garlic sprouts at home in can still be safely eaten.
Organic garlic can be bought in some health foods stores and from CSAs and farms across the country. Click here for sources of organic garlic.
In 2012, Israeli supermarkets started importing Chinese garlic because of a shortage of domestic garlic. China, incidentally, dominates the world market for garlic exports. In Israel, Chinese garlic is sold in net bags which contain about 5 or 6 heads (with a tag stating that it is a product of China). Chinese garlic is white and the roots have been removed. The heads are also smaller than those of Israeli garlic.
Food Safety Concerns with Chinese Garlic
Chinese garlic has been reported to be bleached, sprayed with growth inhibitors to stop it from sprouting on the shelf, and fumigated. There are also several general issues which arise with produce coming from China. In general, 20% of the soil in China is heavily contaminated with heavy metals. While China is looking for ways to ameliorate this problem, there is still ongoing heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and concerns about the quality of the water used for irrigation and other unhealthy farming practices. China’s poor food safety practices also result in a disproportionate number of food contamination issues with foods imported from China.
Garlic’s health benefits
Garlic not only adds flavor to your food, but also, quite probably, years to your life. It is one of the oldest cultivated foods and has been prized for thousands of years for its medicinal qualities. Garlic, particularly whole garlic, is:
- Antimicrobial – kills bacteria, viruses, fungi
- Antithrombotic – prevents the formation of blood clots
- Hypolipidemic – helps decrease the levels of fats in the blood
- Antiarthritic – prevents or relieves the symptoms of arthritis
- Hypoglycemic – reduces blood sugar
- Heart protective – helps prevent hardening of the arteries and other causes of heart disease
- and has antitumor activity – may help prevent cancer.
There’s a whole medicine chest packed into each clove!
Cooking with garlic
Garlic’s health benefits are best preserved when minimally heated. A study of garlic’s bioactive compounds, antioxidant potential, and protein profile when cooked for 20 minutes at 100° C (212° F) during 20 minutes were found to be comparable with fresh garlic. As such, it is recommended that when cooking dishes up to 100° C (212° F), fresh garlic should only be added in the last 20 minutes of cooking process.
all year round
Although garlic is seasonal, we can enjoy it throughout the year.
Dry the garlic yourself
If you are interested in curing (drying) the garlic for long term storage, as we do, you should buy them with the long leaves. After braiding the leaves, they are hung to dry in a cool place out of the sunlight. To learn more about drying and storing garlic, click here. We usually buy enough to last us most of the year, probably about 20 – 25 heads or more, but how much you buy depends on the size of your family and how much whole garlic you use.
Garlic can be naturally pickled, or lacto-fermented, by making a salt-water brine and letting the garlic ferment in it for several days. Vegetables pickled in this fashion have a richer nutritional profile and are a great source of probiotics that support intestinal health. Learn more about fermenting garlic here.
Stinkier but Happier
In my former Western diet eating life, garlic was a powder I used infrequently, mainly when preparing chicken rubbed with garlic and paprika and I sometimes bought ready-made garlic bread from the freezer section of our local US supermarket. Fortunately, a friend introduced us to the deliciousness of homemade garlic oil (chopped up garlic cloves in a bowl of olive oil) a number of years ago and we began using whole garlic to make our own. Whole garlic has become a staple in our kitchen and we use it in many different dishes besides garlic oil (which we still make regularly).
Now I appreciate spring not only for the coming warmer weather and Pesach holiday, but also for the opportunity to stock up on our next year’s worth of fresh Israeli garlic.
Fresher and Smellier
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