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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Great Scape

From the Fridge Dept.: It’s garlic scape season. To get good, fat bulbs from your garlic plants, it’s important to snap off the scapes. What you do next is described below.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
CURLY LIKE A PIGTAIL, bulbed like a phallus, green as a rain-swept lawn, the flowering stalk of the garlic plant right now is a luscious, unusual addition to your dinner table. Find some, cook them, enjoy them – and soon, like me, you’ll be impelled to try to grow them. Unlike many of my gardening pursuits, the garlic crop I put in last fall grew spectacularly well and just yielded a bounty of those stalks, known as scapes, that I harvested last week. I’ve been experimenting with different preparations and sharing these creations with friends, and because you weren’t able to share the delicacy at my table, I offer the following.

Garlic you know, of course, as the spicy, pungent partner of just about everything short of dessert, and even then you haven’t truly experienced its flavor until you’ve tried garlic ice cream. Garlic is part of the onion family (Alliaceae), and carries its own moniker, Allium sativum. What we’re looking at is a variety known as hardneck garlic (or top-setting garlic or serpent garlic) which is where you’ll find the coiling scape stalk.

Let’s dive into The Complete Book of Garlic by Ted Jordan Meredith (Timber Press), where we learn:
“The scape supports the inflorescence, called an umbel. As is typical of aliums, the umbel constitutes garlic’s flowering parts with the numerous flowers connected at a common point and forming a globe shape. Within the umbel numerous bulbils grow among its flowers, ranging in size from a grain of rice to a sugar pea. Depending on the cultivar, the umbel may contain several to more than a hundred bulbils. Bulbils are like miniature garlic cloves, and like cloves, they can be planted and eventually develop into bulbs.
The challenge for the scape fan is to pluck them off the stalk at the right moment for maximum flavor and tenderness. Ideally, this is before the tendril starts curling, which gives you the stalk at its tenderest – but then you have a short, short-lived scape.

I like to pick them when the scapes have started to curl, with the more ambitious of them performing a full circle or more. The curve is a product of irregular cell growth, and eventually evens out, producing a fat umbel on a straight, stiff stalk. So you want to grab them before they uncurl.

Much of the stalk is too tough to chew it raw, but only a light measure of cooking is required to tenderize the tendril. Trim the very top, the tip of which may be browning, and, at the opposite end, cut off any part of the stalk that’s still significantly yellow. If the scape is still very long, you might want to halve it for easier serving.

Steaming is the most straightforward preparation; season with a little salt and pepper. More complexity is revealed if you give the scapes a quick sautée instead of or in addition to steaming. There’s a strong temptation – in my house at least – to add butter. Resist it. The flavor is amazing without it.

Tease out the richest flavor potential by grilling your scapes. Marinate them in a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, give them appropriate grilltop time (flip them once) and you have something even better than fresh grilled asparagus, in large part because scapes have their own built-in garlic flavor.

For eye appeal, decorate the presentation dish with a contrasting color. I made a batch recently that I finished with roasted red peppers tossed with chopped anchovies.

And save the bits you trimmed off. There’s an excellent pesto waiting when you combine them with parmesan cheese and pine nuts in a little olive oil.

Although scapes are a short-season delicacy, they store well, especially if you pick them while they’re curly. Refrigerate them in an air-tight container and you’ll get a few weeks out of them.

Or pickle them. You need nothing fancier than good vinegar, into which you’ll plunge your steamed scapes. Hot peppers? I’ll add some, thanks. Can them, store them, plunge into them in midwinter.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Picking scapes has the added benefit of strengthening the bulb, which gets the growth energy that otherwise would have been directed elsewhere. Unfortunately, scapes have only recently been added to the nouvelle American diet, so they’re not always easy to find (and it’s horrible to think of them mulching away).

Tempted to do some planting? Start by talking to other growers. One of the country’s oldest garlic festivals takes place July 27-29, 2012, in Gilroy, CA, an event that gave birth to The Stinking Rose Restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach (and now with a branch in Beverly Hills, thank you very much) – that’s where you’ll taste your garlic ice cream.

Closer to home, the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival takes place in Saugerties Sept. 29-30, 2012, the 23rd edition of this event (

And if you want a scape fix right now, try your local farmer’s markets. “We don’t have any in stock right now,” said Honest Weight Food Co-op’s Karen Starr when I spoke with her earlier this week. “We rely on local growers to provide them, so it’s really a matter of when somebody shows up with them.”

Which is very much in the spirit of scapes, an evanescent pleasure.

Metroland Magazine, June 25, 2009

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