There's more to the garlic than the bulb.

By Marie Viljoen
June 29, 2020
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As late spring transitions to an undeniable summer, an intriguing seasonal ingredient appears at farmers' markets and in the produce aisle of some more enlightened grocery stores. Convoluted green stalks, each tapering to a snakily thin proboscis, fascinate the curious shopper. Defying neat bundling, they are restrained by rubber bands or displayed in tangled heaps. These are garlic scapes—the tender stems of hardneck garlic plants—cut down in their prime and ready to be eaten. Garlic scapes are an early summer delicacy. Raw, they have all the nose-stinging burn of the familiar bulb and can be used in the same way. Cooked until soft, garlic scapes become distinctly sweet, with a meltingly meaty texture that is unique to this desirable vegetable.

garlic scapes
Credit: Spencer Staats

Garlic does not produce flowers or seeds; instead, it procreates vegetatively, producing bud-like swellings on a single stem. Each bud is destined to become a cluster of new bulbils. If allowed to mature, the cluster becomes heavy enough for the stalk to bend and touch the earth, where the bulbils root and make new plants. Unless they are selling scapes for market, farmers cut and separate these clusters into individual bulbils, and plant them neatly in fall.

How Garlic Scapes Became Trendy

For years they were were invisible. Garlic scapes were considered either waste by farmers who cut them from plants to prevent the bulbs' energy from being diverted into the formation of new bulbils (minus the scape, hardneck garlic bulbs grow about a third fatter and more marketable), or they were collected for fall planting. But prescient garlic farmers identified an opportunity which brought the serpentine stalks to dedicated locavore cooks. Because garlic bulbs are in season only from late summer and sold well into fall, by spring and early summer local garlic supplies dry up while the current year's crop is still underground. Growers realized that the meaty scape, packed with garlic's pungency, offered an interim fix for garlic lovers. As this deliciously twisted vegetable became more familiar and sought-after, more farmers brought scapes to market, getting more bang for their garlic buck by getting two harvests from the same plant.

What to Look For

When shopping for garlic scapes look for bunches whose thin beaks are fully green. Older stems begin to wither and yellow at the tip. If you can't prepare them at once, trim their stems and keep them fresh in a jug of water for a couple of days, or keep them covered in the refrigerator.

Since the tip is the least appealing part of the scape (it can be dry and fibrous), snip it off when prepping the scapes to eat. But be sure to keep that fat bud. You may want to trim the opposite end of the stalks, too. If you can snap them by hand, they are tender and succulent. But if they bend rather than break, trim until you reach the snappable portion.

How to Use Garlic Scapes in Your Cooking

Now what? Because the swollen buds are the most attractive (and dare we say, photogenic?) part of the scape, reserve them intact. If you would like to experience the healthy (they are naturally antibiotic) pungency of raw garlic scapes, chop or purée the stalks. Now they can be the base of a wildly assertive and vivid pesto (it freezes beautifully, if you are making a quantity). The raw purée can also be added to a favorite vinaigrette for some zing, or swirled into risotto or mashed potatoes. Fold finely chopped stalks into logs of butter to top grilled burgers or fish.

Cooking garlic scapes changes their character from unapologetically bold to appealingly sweet. There are two ways to go: dry heat and moist heat. Roast whole garlic scapes in the oven with a little oil until soft. Or grill them slowly over charcoal for a deliciously charred sweetness. Once cooked they are a wonderful side dish, a bed for eggs, a topping for seared steak. They also make a killer sandwich filling.

You could also plunge them whole into boiling water and cook until the stems can be pierced through. Then eat them in purist fashion—simply dressed with extra virgin olive oil—or pile them onto bruschetta. To make a milder version of the raw pesto, purée them and save the buds again for an appealing edible garnish. The same paste can be the base for a cold summer soup with buttermilk, a dip for raw vegetables with fresh chevre or cream cheese, a spread combined with puréed in-season fava beans, or an under-the-skin-stuffing for roast chicken. Have you ever made a savory garlic scape ice cream? Now is the time: Spoon it into a bowl of summer's gazpacho.

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