Considering the size of a clove, garlic has quite the reputation—from its ability to repel vampires and protect against the "evil eye" to its aphrodisiacal and healing powers. (Hippocrates used garlic for treating pneumonia and other infections, cancer and digestive disorders, and as a diuretic.) It was even used as Egyptian currency.
China is by far the largest producer of garlic worldwide, followed by India, South Korea, Russia and the United States. In the U.S., where it's grown in almost every state, California is the major producer.
While we now eat more than 250 million pounds of garlic every year, garlic wasn't enjoyed in the U.S. until the 20th century. In the 1920s, "Bronx vanilla" and "Italian perfume" were slang for garlic.
Garlic is a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese. It's also a good source of calcium, phosphorus, selenium, protein, thiamin, potassium, iron and copper.
All true garlic is Allium sativum, a relative of the lily. There are two subspecies, soft-neck garlic and hard-neck garlic. Soft-neck garlic has a flexible stalk and a papery white skin. It's the type of garlic most often found in the produce aisle. Artichoke garlic, which is mild and a good storer, is a soft-neck garlic, as is Silverskin garlic, a strongly flavored variety that keeps extremely well (up to a year).
Hard-neck varieties have a firm stalk sticking up an inch or so from the top of the bulb. The main hard-neck garlics are Rocambole, which peels easily; Porcelain, which has large cloves and is a good keeper; and Purple stripe, which is often used for making baked garlic.
Black garlic is garlic that's been slowly roasted for a month or so, resulting in a caramelized, sweet/savory flavor.
Elephant garlic isn't true garlic but a leek, milder than garlic.
Taste varies with types of garlic, from subtle and sweet to strong and hot, or pungent with a subtle background sweetness.
Garlic can single-handedly transform a simple slice of bread or a bowl of mashed potatoes into a delicacy. It's a key ingredient in pestos. And it'll perk up any sauce or dressing. Kale Salad with Black Garlic relies on the mild, sweet and savory taste of black garlic. Marinades benefit from a dose of garlic, too. Lemon Garlic Chicken with Mjadra marinates chicken in lemon, garlic and spices before baking and serving atop mjadra, a Middle Eastern pilaf.
Garlic is wonderful when roasted. Use it to make garlic butter or in any spread. Spicy Roasted Garlic Hummus celebrates the sweet, mellow, nutty flavor of roasted garlic along with a little jalapeno zing.
For an enticing appetizer, try Garlic Poached Mushrooms with Fresh Basil.
Keep in mind that the longer garlic is cooked, the milder the flavor. Don't burn it, though, or it will become bitter.
Garlic is available year round, fresh from California from June through December.
Choose heads that are firm and plump, without nicks. Avoid garlic that has dark, powdery patches under the skin, which indicates mold. Size isn't an indication of quality.
Store unpeeled garlic in an open container in a cool, dry place, away from direct light. Keep it away from other foods. If garlic begins to sprout, discard the sprouts, as these can be bitter.
You can also purchase peeled cloves or minced garlic, in olive or vegetable oil. These should be kept refrigerated.