Celebrating garlic, super-food, medicinal wonder and fighter of evil spirits

It’s April 19, Garlic Day!

Then again, in my household, every day is garlic day – I just love the taste of these pungent cloves, and the fact that it’s good for me is just another reason for celebration.

Garlic, a close relative to onions, shallots, leeks and chives, has been around for a long, long time, dating back about 7000 years, and it has been used for culinary, medicinal and religious purposes in Asia, Africa and Europe. Over the years it has spread to become a truly global herb (or vegetable, depending on your classification).

Hanging garlic to dry after harvest allows it to keep for a long time. (© All Rights Reserved)
Hanging garlic to dry after harvest allows it to keep for a long time.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From a culinary perspective, garlic, both raw or cooked, adds a distinct, pungent flavour that lifts many a dish from the ordinary to the sublime. A staple in mediterranean cooking, it is also popular in many other cooking traditions. Mixing garlic with olive oil, lemon juice and egg yolks produce aioli, a delicious, mayonnaise-like sauce traditionally served with seafood, but also used as an accompaniment to many other dishes.

An interesting, fairly recent development in garlic cuisine is ‘black garlic’ – garlic that has been subjected to an extended fermentation period under high heat. During the fermentation, melanoidin is produced, which is responsible for the garlic cloves turning black. The resultant black garlic , which has a tender, almost jelly-like texture and a rich, tangy molasses-like taste is said to contain double the antioxidants of normal garlic, while not causing the dreaded ‘garlic breath’.

The medicinal benefits of garlic is well documented. It is used to lower cholesterol levels and reduce high blood pressure, and is said to strengthen the body’s immune system and fight fatigue. It has even been credited with preventing some cancers and increasing longevity, and it has been suggested to help regulate blood sugar levels. Garlic is rich in Vitamins A, B1 and C, and contains calcium, magnesium and iron, as well as a range of amino acids.

In addition to it’s medicinal benefits, garlic has also been believed to have spiritual powers. Europeans in the Middle Ages ate garlic to ward off the Black Death, and legend has it that garlic, worn around your neck, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes, keeps vampires, werewolves and other evil spirits at bay. I suppose this means all vampires and werewolves suffer from ‘Alliumphobia’, which is the fear of garlic.

Delicious in a range of dishes, good for your health and effective at warding off evil spirits – what more can one ask for?

Celebrating carrots (even if they don’t give you night vision)

Today, 4 April 2013, is the 10th celebration of International Carrot Day, the day to dress in orange and celebrate the wholesome goodness of these versatile and delicious orange vegetables. I wonder whether Carrot Day being celebrated so close to Easter has anything to do with the Easter Bunny’s love of carrots?

Whether you like carrots in a meaty stew, as part of a vegetable curry, on its own in a salad, steamed and served sweet with a touch of sugar, or juiced for an invigorated drink, there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy these delicious veges on Carrot Day. For a slightly more decadent celebration, you can even bake a deliciously moist carrot cake or a traditional English carrot pudding!

Nothing like a crop of fresh, healthy carrots straight from the vege patch.(© All Rights Reserved)
Nothing like a crop of fresh, healthy carrots straight from the vege patch.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Did you know that the carrot is a member of the parsley family? And apparently it was originally grown for medicinal purposes (mainly for its aromatic leaves and seeds) before its edible taproot became popular as a food source. Of course carrots are a great source of beta carotene (the reason for their orange colour), that gets absorbed by the liver and converted to Vitamin A. Interestingly, eaten raw, we only absorb between 3 and 4% of the beta carotene in carrots during digestion. When the carrots are steamed, cooked or juiced, however, the absorption rate can be increased up to 10-fold.

A shortage of Vitamin A in the body can cause poor vision (night vision in particular) – a situation that can be treated and restored through Vitamin A supplementation. For this reason, it has become a popular urban legend that eating large amounts of carrots will enable you to see in the dark. Sorry to burst that bubble, but over-consumption of carrots is more likely to lead to ‘carotenosis’, a benign condition where the skin (especially the insides of the hand and feet) and the whites of the eyes, turn a shade of orange.

Because of their beta-carotene content, carrots are sometimes included in poultry-feed to deepen the colour of egg-yolks.

Carrots are also a good source of fibre and are rich in antioxidants and trace minerals. And if that’s not enough reason to grow a crop of carrots in your vege garden, it has also been suggested that carrots are good companion crops – grown intercropped with tomatoes increases tomato-production, and if left to flower, carrots attract wasps that are beneficial in killing many garden pests.

All in all, a great vegetable, and definitely worth a day of celebration.