It is mid-June, and on my last visit to my vegetable garden, I noticed that my nearby hardneck garlic patch looked armed and dangerous. Each stem aimed a pointed arrowhead toward me, as if to fend off an attack.
Fortunately, those arrow-shaped bulbs at the top of each plant are totally non-threatening. In fact, they are downright delicious, and as a bonus, harvesting them will encourage your garlic plant to dedicate its energy to producing a large, flavorful bulb underground. Left in place, the garlic scape will produce a bud full of bulbils, which will drain energy from the plant and cause it to produce a smaller edible underground bulb.
Once upon a time, the growers would just clip off the scapes and toss them. Suddenly, however, they have become a hot commodity among chefs and adventurous cooks everywhere. If you see some available, pounce on them, because they are usually only available for a week or two in June!
If you are a fan of the pungent flavors of garlic, using the scape offers a new way to experience a milder version of the flavors. While long a favorite of Asian cooks, garlic scapes are a relatively new addition to the farmers markets of my area. I am a very recent convert to the art of cooking garlic scapes, myself, so I thought I would share the basics with you!
I have a separate garlic patch, apart from my vegetable garden, because garlic operates under a very different schedule than the rest of my vegetables. In late summer, I order a selection of hardneck garlic varieties. I choose hardneck garlic because it does well in northern gardens where winter temperatures are colder. It also stores longer, once harvested. There is a fantastic array of flavors available in hardneck garlic, from mild and mellow, to those that will bite you back!
Once the temperatures have started to drop, I break the heads of garlic into individual cloves, and plant each variety in a separate row. I fork the ground up to a fine, soft texture, and then press each clove about 4 inches down into the ground, with the root end down and the pointed end up. Once the ground freezes hard in winter, I cover it with a blanket of clean straw to help prevent the ground from warming and thawing too often. I don't want the plants to start sending up shoots in January, using precious energy stored in the cloves, only to have them freeze and die back again!
In spring, there is not much to do but pull the straw back once the weather has warmed. The garlic will send lovely green shoots up very early in the spring. If you have planted an overabundance, you can harvest some of these young garlic plants and use them much like you would use green onions. If you frequent farmer's markets, or belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), you may see "green garlic" in April and May. This is simply the young garlic plants, before the full head of garlic has formed underground.
In June, the garlic will send up long scapes, which are essentially the stems that support the flower heads. The scape will appear round, and look a lot like chives, though it is firmer than your typical chive. These will often curl and curve in all sorts of graceful shapes as they emerge. I prefer to harvest them while they are still young and tender. As they age, and the flower bud portion swells, the stem will straighten and get tougher. They are still edible at that stage, but I prefer them before they get quite as fibrous.
If you do not harvest the scapes, the bulb forming at the top will develop into small bulbils (right). These CAN be planted, and will eventually form into mature garlic plants with heads made up of multiple cloves, but it will take 2-3 years to bring them to that stage. It is much better to cut off the scapes, allow the heads to form fully underground, and then save a few of the largest cloves to replant in the fall. By July of the following year, each of those planted cloves will have formed into a complete head.
Cut each scape with kitchen shears just above the top set of leaves. I have heard it is best to do this in the heat of the afternoon, as the plant will ooze some juice, and the heat will help it dry and seal more quickly. This will help protect the garlic from the introduction of disease or insects while it is freshly cut.
Once you have harvested the scapes, they need to be used within a day or two. The flavor of the scapes is milder than the actual cloves of the garlic plant. They can be finely diced and used in place of garlic in a recipe, though you will need to use about double the quantity.
I love grilling vegetables, so I decided to experiment and treat them much the way I treat another tender spring favorite, asparagus. I wash the scapes well, then spread them in a shallow pan. I drizzle them with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar, and sprinkle them lightly with seasoned salt and freshly ground black pepper. If you use a charcoal grill (our preference!), allow your grill to burn down until you can hold your hand 4-5 inches above the grill rack for 5 seconds. I usually grill my meat first, while the grill is hotter, and then do the vegetables last when the grill is cooler. If you use a gas grill, set it to a lower heat setting. Lay the garlic scapes perpendicular to the grill grates, so they don't fall through into the coals. Turn often to prevent burning, and cook just until tender. If you are not a fan of grilling, you can also put them in a roasting pan and place them under the broiler in your oven, turning them often whenever they start to brown. I think grilling and roasting mellows and complements the flavor of vegetables like no other cooking method!
Garlic scapes are also fantastic in Asian-inspired stir-fries. Cut them into 3-4 inch pieces, and toss them into the hot wok or saute pan along with your other vegetables. If your scapes are young and still very tender, you can add them directly with the other vegetables. If they have matured a little more, and are straight and a little firmer, you can simmer them until they are tender, and then add them to the stir fry, much as you would with carrots, broccoli, asparagus, or other firmer vegetables.
I stumbled across several recipes for garlic scape pesto, and decided to try it, as I had more garlic scapes than I knew what to do with this year! I had all the ingredients on hand for this one, which I found on the Washington Post website, HERE, so gave it a try:
Garlic Scape Pesto
1 cup garlic scapes (about 8 or 9 scapes), top flowery part removed, cut into ¼-inch slices 1/3 cup walnuts ¾ cup olive oil ¼ - 1/2 cup grated parmigiano ½ teaspoon salt black pepper to taste
Place scapes and walnuts in the bowl of a food processor and whiz until well combined and somewhat smooth. Slowly drizzle in oil and process until integrated.
With a rubber spatula, scoop pesto out of bowl and into a mixing bowl. Add parmigiano to taste; add salt and pepper. For ½ pound short pasta such as penne, add about 2 tablespoons of pesto to cooked pasta and stir until pasta is well coated.
Makes about 6 ounces of pesto. Keeps for up to one week in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.
Fortunately, pesto freezes quite well. I follow the directions up until the point where it calls for adding the parmigiano. I separate out what we will eat that day, and incorporate the cheese into that portion. I divide the rest into single-serving amounts and freeze. Ice cube trays are great for this purpose: each cube holds about an ounce. You can freeze it in one-ounce portions, then seal the cubes in a freezer bag. To serve, just thaw and stir in the parmigiano (about 1-2 tsp. for each 2 T. of pesto). Use as-is, or add a few of your favorite roasted vegetables. The author of the Washington Post article recommends roasted cherry tomatoes.
The thumbnail image at the beginning of this article is from Flickr Creative Commons, submitted by urbanfoodie33. The original can be seen here. My thanks for making your image available!
All other images are my own.
About Angela Carson
I was bitten hard by the gardening bug when I was just a child, and have been doing my best to infect as many people as possible ever since! I particularly have a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which I am teaching the next generation how to preserve. My two sons have obviously inherited my interest in growing things, and my husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for my latest schemes!