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Garlic is such a beloved ingredient there are festivals held in its honor worldwide. California's annual Gilroy Garlic Festival draws hundreds of amateur chefs who prepare everything from Garlic Seafood Soup to garlic-flavored ice cream.
This edible bulb of the Allium Sativum plant consists of a single head that can be easily separated into smaller cloves, each individually wrapped in a papery skin. As a member of the lily family, garlic is a relative to leeks, chives, onions and shallots.
In its raw form, garlic is pungent and slightly bitter, but when baked or sautéed, it becomes wonderfully mellow and sweet. Garlic is an indispensable ingredient in kitchens around the world. Its unmistakable flavor and aroma grace everything from Italian spaghetti sauces and Mexican tamales to Chinese stir-fries and Indian curries.
Flavorful legend and superstition has surrounded garlic for its entire 5,000-year history. According to an Islamic legend, when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden after the fall of man, garlic sprang from the spot of his left foot, and onion from the spot of his right.
Believing garlic was magical, the ancient Greeks and Romans offered gifts of garlic to appease the gods. Spanish bullfighters carry garlic to prevent bulls from charging, and donning a garlic necklace just might protect you from the bite of a vampire.
There are more than 300 varieties of garlic being grown around the world, but the four major types are American, Mexican, Italian and Elephant.
American garlic is white-skinned and the most strongly flavored.
Mexican and Italian both have mauve-colored skins and a slightly milder flavor.
Elephant (also called Giant or Spanish) garlic yields cloves that are two to three times larger than common garlic. It carries the mildest flavor, and in fact, is not a true garlic but a relative of the leek.
Occasionally available at specialty markets is Green, or Spring Baby garlic. Harvested before the cloves form, green garlic resembles baby leeks or green onions with fresh green tops. They offer garlic flavor, but without the bite.
Garlic flavor is also available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes, or instant garlic, has been dried and sliced into bits than can be reconstituted in liquid dishes like soups and stews. When ground, these flakes are used to make garlic powder and garlic salt. Pressed cloves are also used to make commercial garlic extracts, pastes and juices. While all of these products are convenient, none even come close to replicating the mouthwatering aroma and flavor of fresh.
Readily available year-round, garlic bulbs should be firm and plump, with their paper skins intact. Avoid heads with sprouting, soft spots or other blemishes.
Store fresh garlic in an open container, away from other foods and in a cool, dark place for up to two months. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will stay fresh for three to 10 days before drying out.