Scapes are great
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
The term “scape” describes a structure that emerges from the tops of some garlic plants. Scapes are not flowers, but are often referred to as “garlic flowers,” and are flower-like in many important ways.
For one, they’re beautiful, shooting from the plant like a slow-motion rocket ship. It charts a circular path, with two consecutive 360-degree rotations, like a cartoon pig’s tail. After a few more days the scape will uncurl and stand up straight, three feet off the ground, and the tip will open in a very flower-like way, and produce seed-like structures called bulbules. Thanks to botanical nuance you can’t accurately call them flowers, but you can, at least, call them garlic. More importantly, you can eat them like garlic.
Most large commercial growers prefer to grow the non-scape-producing garlic varieties, collectively called soft-neck garlic. Soft-neck garlic is less work for the grower, precisely because there are no scapes to deal with.
If the scapes aren’t picked, then the growth of the bulbs—the plant part that we typically refer to as garlic—will be stunted. Assuming one is growing a scape-producing hard-neck garlic variety, yanking the scapes will allow the bulbs to grow larger.
Hard-neck garlic varieties are popular with the kind of small-scale farmers that sell at farmers markets, local coops and high-end grocery stores, and these are the places where scapes can be found, sold by the bunch, through June.
Garlic flowers are versatile in the kitchen and fun to work with. They can be cooked like a vegetable, such as in recipes that might call for string beans or asparagus. Or the scapes can be minced and used as a flavoring, as garlic is. The less you cook the scapes, the brighter green they remain, and more spicy, raw garlic flavor is retained. If you cook them until navy green, they will become sweeter and softer.
Garlic growers and scape eaters alike share a common interest in the scape being harvested before or during its curled phase. Once it begins to stand up and straight-end, the scape becomes woody, much as asparagus will.
Waiting this long to harvest the scapes means they end up spending a lot of time on the plant, siphoning resources away from the bulbs. So I harvest my scapes as soon as they appear, pulling straight up on the flowering stalk with a gentle tug, like pulling a blade of grass.
To prepare them, cut off the tip, as they tend to dry out, and check the other ends for any sign of woodiness, and break off any woody ends.
Garlic Flower Pesto
One dozen scapes
Half-teaspoon of salt
Three (or so) ounces of grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano (a lot of leeway here)
A stalk or two’s worth of basil leaves
1/3 cup pine nuts, cashew nuts, or the pesto nut of your choice
Squirt of lemon juice and some zesto
Olive oil, as needed (roughly ¾ cup)
In a food processor, whizz the scapes into a green and white confetti. Add salt, cheese, basil, nuts, and lemon to the food processor, and resume spinning. Begin adding olive oil slowly. Add just enough oil so that the pesto just starts to freely vortex like a liquid. Taste, adjust any ingredients you wish, and continue processing until smooth. Adding more basil will tilt the flavor away from garlic pesto and more toward a garlicky basil pesto. Serve with pasta, or whatever else you make with pesto.
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