By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 2
My first walk through a garlic field was on a sunny June day about 15 years ago while visiting a friend’s Minnesota farm. The ground was littered with these sad-looking, broken, curly stems, and I asked my farmer friend what they were all about: “Oh, those are just garlic scapes,” he said. “We break them off to keep all the energy in the bulb, which makes them grow bigger.”
His cash crop was the garlic bulbs, and to him, those flowering stems called scapes (also known as tops or spears) were worthless.
“Can’t you eat them?” I asked, and he replied, “Yeah, I guess you could.”
Silly man. He couldn’t see his forest of culinary garlic possibility for the trees of marketable bulbs! Earlier that day, when I was trying to make lunch and noticed there was no garlic in his kitchen, he said he didn’t want to buy imported garlic when he had a whole field to be harvested in a few weeks. He could have had scapes! In addition, this alternative, green, garlicky goodness would have held his CSA customers over until the bulb harvest.
But he wasn’t alone in overlooking his scapes. It’s only very recently that small farmers in the U.S. have started marketing scapes for the few weeks they’re available as a vegetable in their own right.
I started growing garlic myself after that conversation in the garlic field, and not a single scape of mine has ever hit the ground. They’ve become one of my favorite vegetables. Here’s why:
- They’re so darn cool looking with their dramatic curly-Q stems and pointy tips. You can use them as a bracelet or a chic flower arrangement if you have too many to eat.
- They’re easy to harvest. Just cut or snap them off above the leaves of the plant (and they need to be removed anyway to help the bulbs grow large).
- They’re easy to prepare. Snip off the tough pointy tip and cut the rest into large chunks, thinly slice or mince them, or give them a whirl in the food processor.
- They’re versatile in the kitchen. Pungent with that garlic bite when raw; mild and almost sweet when cooked.
- They’re either a free bonus from your or a friend’s garlic patch or cheap from the farmers market or food co-op.
- They’re only around for a little while, and when they are, there are lots of them. It’s a fun super-kitchen challenge to enjoy the heck out of them in a gazillion different ways—quick!
- Even though they’re only around for a little while, they keep for quite some time, either in a vase of water on your kitchen table or in plastic in the fridge. They also freeze well, particularly when made into pesto.
Another intriguing aspect of garlic scapes, from my gardener-cook perspective, is that even though we can only harvest garlic bulbs in late-summer in our climate, some part of the plant is edible year-round. This means that if one grows her own garlic, there is virtually no need to ever buy it from elsewhere, either to eat or grow. You can’t make that claim about many other plants.
The life-cycle of hardneck garlic (the kind we grow here in the northern climates) goes like this:
First there are garlic bulbs. If they’re divided into cloves and planted and mulched in the fall, they’ll sprout, hang out through the winter and start to grow first thing in the spring.
You can thin your patch and harvest some of those young plants from spring until June as green garlic, which is like a mildly garlicky scallion.
In late-June or early-July come the scapes that I so admire, which can be harvested when quite young until they curl a couple times, or for about 2 weeks. And we already talked about how they can be stored for a couple weeks more.
You can harvest fresh garlic any time after that, but by mid-July the bulbs will be developed enough to harvest for storage. Properly cured and stored, garlic bulbs will keep until spring. Be sure to set aside enough of the best ones to break into cloves to be planted again in October, starting the cycle all over again.
Garlic is like a magic edible gift that keeps giving, and if you plan correctly as a gardener, CSA customer or shopper, you never have to go without some form of local garlic.
But I digress. Back to the scapes.
Here’s what you need to know to enjoy eating them. The younger the scape (smaller and shorter stem and less developed bud), the more tender, mild and fresh-tasting it will be. These are the best ones to eat raw. Larger scapes are more pig-tailed and cool-looking but will be a bit tougher and hotter; these are best cooked. When cooked, they’re similar texturally to a mild garlic-infused green bean or asparagus spear.
Use minced scapes as a substitute for garlic cloves in any recipe (just use about twice as much since they’re milder), but I encourage exploring them as a vegetable in their own right. There are many classic Chinese and Korean recipes featuring garlic scapes as a vegetable, mostly in large chunks as spicy pickles or in stir-fries or soups.
Scapes are becoming something of a seasonal darling for local foodies (and for good reason!), so most small garlic farmers have started marketing them—even my Minnesota farmer friend who used to compost them. Their cult following and plentifulness in mid-June mean you’ll have no trouble finding them at markets and in CSA boxes.