The U.S. Department of Agriculture believes you're going to consume at least 20 heads of garlic this year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture believes you're going to consume at least 20 heads of garlic this year.

According to the government's calculations, garlic consumption soared over the past 20 years, hitting a record high of 3 pounds per person in 1999, then settling in at a respectable 2.6 pounds in 2008. That's three times the quantity from back in 1989, indicating a growth spurt that has eclipsed the rising popularity of other likeable vegetables such as sweet peppers, carrots and broccoli.

Garlic's popularity reflects a shift in cooking styles and preferences: Ethnic foods are hot, for one thing. Additionally, people believe reports that publicize the health benefits of garlic — high in antioxidants and good at reducing cholesterol and blood-pressure levels — which in turn, has generated sales for the dietary-supplement industry.

My garlic-consuming habits alone can compensate for several cooks who may be steering clear of this dynamic member of the onion family. Right now, fresh-from-the-field garlic is at its peak and very available at local farmers' markets.

I love it at this stage when growers are likely to sell it with long stems and leggy leaves still attached, great globs of dirt clinging to the roots and moisture within the bulbs all but oozing out. The skin hasn't even dried to the papery-thin layer you find later on in the supermarket, so peeling the bulbs is truly optional. And its flavor is slightly less pungent than it will be once the moisture has left.

Storage? As long as it's so moist and tender, I opt for the fridge. But it will survive just fine in your pantry.

Why not make storage a moot issue, however, by simply cooking like crazy with what you've brought into the kitchen? See these recipes for a few ideas.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.