There’s a unique synergy in the intersection of food and medicine. We’re taught that each has its place: Food nourishes the body, and medicine cures the body. But what if we recognize that we can make use of the power of food and herbs to support the body?
Traditional culinary herbs and spices have formidable medicinal abilities. They support everything from digestion and metabolism to immune function, circulation, and the nervous system.
Take garlic, for example. Garlic (Allium sativum) contains highly medicinal sulfur compounds, including alliin, which, when acted upon by an enzyme called alliinase, is converted into allicin. Allicin has attracted lots of attention from researchers because of its potent antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal activity. Garlic just happens to contain both alliin and alliinase; they’re stored in different parts of the bulb, kept apart from one another by cell membranes. When you cut, crush, or juice garlic, these compounds come together and produce allicin.
Garlic has long been used as a remedy for asthma and other respiratory issues. Garlic infused in vinegar with honey is a classic tonic for upper respiratory congestion, asthma, and seasonal allergies. If fresh garlic is too harsh for your stomach, try adding fennel seed to soothe and soften its pungent flavor.
Some studies show that garlic helps the body better synthesize and utilize cholesterols. And garlic’s powerful antimicrobial compounds can be of assistance in cases of everything from intestinal bugs and parasites to cold, flu, and sore throat. Fresh garlic extract and garlic paste can be effective against fungal infections, such as oral thrush. Garlic has even been shown to help fight off some strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Externally, garlic-infused oil or a fresh plant poultice can be used on fungal or bacterial infections of the skin or nails; inflammatory conditions such as aches, sprains, and bruises; and mild skin irritations.
Both cooked and raw garlic should be used freely in the diet. Raw garlic is lovely in salad dressings and other condiments; if you want to use it in a cooked dish, add it at or near the very end of cooking to preserve its volatile constituents. Adding garlic in the early stages of cooking a dish will develop deeper flavor profiles, so often I add it at both the beginning and the end.
Many folks find raw garlic to be harsh on their stomachs but still want to incorporate it into their diet. If this is true for you, consider garlic-infused honey or garlic-infused vinegar with honey — the honey helps to mellow and soften the harsh, pungent compounds. Fermented garlic in kraut or kimchi has the same health benefits of raw garlic, but with a mellower flavor. Pickled garlic is also often mild enough for people with a sensitive stomach. If raw garlic continues to bother you, just eat it cooked!
Plant cloves in well-drained beds after the first frost has passed and the soil is cool. Choose a sunny site, and loosen the planting bed to at least 12 inches deep. Thoroughly mix in a 1-inch layer of compost. Wait until just before planting to break the bulbs into cloves. Poke the cloves into the ground 4 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart, with their pointed ends up. Cover the planted area with 3 to 5 inches of organic mulch, such as hay or shredded leaves.
Softneck types grow best where winters are mild, though some tolerate cold to Zone 5. Most cultivars don't produce scapes (edible curled flower stalks), but softnecks are great for braiding. Subtypes include Creole, artichoke, and many Asian cultivars.
Hardneck types adapt to cold winter climates, and all produce tasty curled scapes in early summer. Popular subtypes include porcelain, purple stripe, and rocambole.
Brittany Wood Nickerson shares her experience in herbal medicine and professional cooking through her business, Thyme Herbal. This is an excerpt from her book Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen, available in the Heirloom Gardener store.
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