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World's Garlic Capital Starts to Sizzle

The pungent bulb takes front burner at Gilroy, Calif., festival this weekend

SOMETHING'S in the air here, especially on a hot day during harvest. You know you're driving through Gilroy. It's the garlic, strong and potent. Guaranteed to make your eyes water and your breath smell.

And in Gilroy, Calif., the Garlic Capital of the World, they're proud of it. It's grown, processed, and celebrated here with one of the biggest, and most pungent, food festivals in the state.

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Each year since 1979, mobs converge on this small community for the Gilroy Garlic Festival. This weekend, 135,000 visitors are expected over the three days. They come from all over, arriving with mouths watering for new ways to eat the bulb and leaving with satisfied palates and bad breath.

''It's all so fun - the variety of food. We're a food fair. Everything has garlic in it,'' says Chris Filice of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, which operates year-round to organize the annual festival.

Garlic ice cream is a festival mainstay, as are garlic cookies. In the past, there's been garlic alligator. This year, turtle soup with - you guessed it, garlic - is on the menu.

In all, there are 94 food booths, each with at least one garlic dish. The chefs in Gourmet Alley, the culinary heart of the festival, alone used more than a ton of minced fresh garlic last year (2,888 pounds to be exact) for their nine dishes, including garlic calamari, stuffed mushrooms with garlic, pasta with pesto, and 26,400 slices of garlic bread. Only in the children's area can you eat garlic-free.

That's the beauty of garlic. It's easy to use, it's versatile, and it can add so much flavor to so many dishes.

''It can be used in almost every area of the cuisine, in soups, salads, main dishes,'' says Patsy Ross of Christopher Ranch of Gilroy.

Christopher Ranch, possibly the largest fresh garlic producer in the United States, now grows, packs, and ships more than 50 million pounds of fresh garlic around the world, for grocery stores, food-service companies, and industrial food processors. The company helped form the festival and is still involved.

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Just two years ago, Christopher Ranch was producing a mere 40 million pounds of garlic a year.

Why the growth in popularity of fresh garlic?

''People are trying to watch the amount of fat in their diet, and salt, too,'' Ross says. ''Garlic is just so full of flavor. It's extremely low in fat and sodium. It gives your taste buds what they're missing.''

Garlic is strongest in its raw form, sliced, minced, or pressed, and gets milder as it is cooked. Many prefer it roasted, cooked for about an hour with olive oil in foil or a clay pot, where the bulb becomes spreadable and the flavor turns nutty.

The latest trend is pickled garlic. It's mild, and whole cloves can be eaten straight from the jar. Ms. Filice, of the Garlic Festival Association, says her office gets calls year-round from East Coast garlic lovers wanting a jar.

''You can't buy it on the grocery shelves like you can here,'' Ms. Filice says. ''People are buying it like crazy.''

Pickled garlic can also be sliced and added to sandwiches, thrown whole into salads, or chopped and added into relishes.

Other uses

* When making mashed potatoes, throw a few peeled cloves into the boiling water.

* Boil a few cloves of garlic for about five minutes. Cool and crush, and then mix with a stick of butter for a spread.

* Rub a cut garlic clove inside a wooden salad bowl before filling it with salad.

* Saute a clove or two of minced garlic in butter or olive oil, and serve with chopped fresh tomatoes over angel-hair pasta.

Peeling the skin

Break the bulb into individual cloves. Slice off ends of the clove, lay clove on a firm surface, and press firmly with the flat side of a wide-blade knife.

The papery skin will break, and the peeled clove will slide out.

Keep it out of the frige

Store garlic in a covered jar with air holes. If sprouts begin to form, the garlic is still edible but slightly less flavorful. For best results, don't refrigerate.

But garlic can be frozen. Separate unpeeled heads into cloves, freeze on a cookie sheet, and then transfer into plastic bags until you are ready to use them. To use, peel while they are still frozen and use as you would fresh garlic.

No more bad breath

Easy as it is to use, garlic is difficult to get rid of. To cure garlic breath, try chewing a little parsley or taking a sip of lemon juice.

But for best results, eat some yourself and everyone else's bad breath will disappear.

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