Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.
If there ever was a poster child for Real Food Right Now, it would be, hands down, the garlic scape. With a tangle of green curlicued shoots in your midst, you aren’t just eating seasonally; you're literally eating in the moment. Here’s what I mean: The scape (aka garlic shoot or curl) represents a specific stage of growth of hard-necked varieties of garlic. Like its brothers and sisters in the Allium family, garlic (A. sativum) grows underground, developing into a soft bulb. As the bulb grows and hardens, a green shoot pokes its head through the ground and curls in pig tail-like fashion before straightening. (A tangle of them always makes me think of Medusa’s fabulous mane.)
The scape is also a quintessential example of “nose-to-tail” vegetable eating. Snip while curly and you've got mild garlicky goodness with an asparagus-like texture and versatile appeal. Ignored, the scape hardens into what we know as the garlic stalk (or neck) and the bulb below never reaches its full potential.
I wait all year long for scapes to arrive at my local farmers' market, marking my calendar for mid to late June for their short yet dramatic stay. Ever since discovering the scape in 2005, I've made it my personal mission to spread the gospel about one of the most interesting vegetables you'll ever come to know. Garlic lovers only need apply; although the scape is milder in flavor, it tends to linger in the mouth.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a date with a scape before it’s too late...
A Brief History
You can’t talk about garlic scapes in the absence of garlic, one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables. (In fact, there’s little out there about the history and lore of the scape.) Garlic is old-school food y'all; there are references to it in the Bible and the Koran, and it’s mentioned as part of the diet on Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating to 2300 BCE. (Source: Eric Block’s Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science) It was used as both a funereal offering and embalming agent in ancient Egypt.
- Native to central Asia, garlic eventually made its way to the Mediterranean, where it remains a central ingredient of the region’s heart-healthy, disease-fighting diet. It is believed to have made its way to North America via European settlers during colonial times and revered for its medicinal rather than culinary benefits until the early 20th century.
- For millennia, garlic has been used for its medicinal and healing properties in cultures worldwide, but in certain cultures, it’s verboten. The Jains (who practice very specific eating traditions) refrain from garlic because like other root vegetables, pulling the plant out of the ground effectively kills it. I wonder if scapes would be acceptable, since cutting them allows garlic bulbs to grow?
- Devotees of Lord Krishna, also known as Vaishnavas, abstain from garlic because it is considered a distraction to devotion practices. Similarly, in Ayurvedic medicine, garlic is considered rajasic, which means it may stimulate passion, a detour from meditation.
- Elephant garlic is not true garlic, but a member of the leek family. This scape lover recently saw elephant garlic scapes from California in her local (Seattle) supermarket.
China is the world’s leading producer of garlic, responsible for more than three-fourths of the global supply in 2010. It’s unknown if scapes are being used domestically in China and it’s anyone’s guess just how soon we'll see imported scapes in American supermarkets – another reason to enjoy scapes from local farms!
Most American garlic is grown in central California, in the town of Gilroy, home to a renowned garlic festival (which this writer has had the stinky pleasure of experiencing). Although Gilroy describes itself as the “garlic capital of the world,” the United States is currently number six in worldwide production, contributing just 1.4 percent of the garlic equation.
As mentioned earlier, hard neck varieties produce the beloved scapes, which savvy farmers snip, bunch and sell at a premium at farmers' markets.
As we've established, the scape represents a particular stage in the life span of the garlic plant, so it’s like an early birthday present from Mother Nature. It’s rare to get two plants for the environmental price of one, so to speak.
In the seven years I've been cooking with garlic scapes, I've only seen them available through local points of purchase, either through farms stands, CSA boxes or farmers' markets, which keeps the fossil fuel impact down and dollars close by. As such, it stands to reason that local garlic scapes (and their bulbs) would likely have a lower pesticide load, even from non-certified organic farms. (See our veggie rule of thumb, below*.)
But will the scape remain a local foods exclusive for much longer? Given its continued skyrocketing popularity among curious cooks, it’s anyone’s guess when it will become the next “it” girl in upscale supermarkets nationwide.
As of this writing, nutritional details for the scape are unavailable (but we're working on it!). Bulb garlic has long been known for its healing properties, a motherlode of anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral agents, as well as cholesterol-lowering magic powers. We can only assume that as a part of the plant, the scape has some of these disease-fighting attributes and will share nutritional updates as they become available.
What to Look For
Scapes should be firm but somewhat flexible and free of blemishes or moldy spots. As they age, scapes will fade and brown, similar to what happens with a scallion.
What To Do With It
Store in the refrigerator and use within a week, as the stalks will eventually soften and lose their punch. Trim the end that was formerly attached to the bulb and discard the flowery blossom, as it tends to be stringy. You could also blanch (quick boil) for 60 seconds, followed by an ice bath, then freeze for when you get a scapes hankering later this year (and you will).
Slice thinly (about 1⁄4-inch pieces) and use like your other favorite allium friends. Saute and incorporate into fried rice, omelets, stir-fries or as a pizza topping. I'm inspired to try them pickled, but really what I breathlessly wait for all year long is to make batches of pesto – to be tossed into pasta, spread onto sandwiches, lathered onto bruschetta and dipped with grilled vegetables. I'll freeze a bunch without the cheese and thaw for later this summer when Sun Gold tomatoes are ready. The pairing is sublime.
Ready, set, scape...
Recipe: Garlic Scape Pesto
Excerpted From “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook” by Kim O'Donnel by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2010.
1 cup garlic scapes (8 or 9 scapes), top flowery part removed, cut into 1⁄4-inch slices
1⁄3 cup walnuts
3⁄4cup olive oil
1⁄4to 1⁄2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1⁄2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Ground black pepper
Here’s What to Do
Place the scapes and walnuts in the bowl of a food processor and whiz until well combined and somewhat smooth. Slowly drizzle in the oil and process until integrated.
With a rubber spatula, scoop the pesto out of the bowl and into a mixing bowl. Add Parmigiano- Reggiano and salt and pepper to taste.
Keeps for up to one week in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Also freezes well; add the cheese after the pesto has thawed.
Makes about 3⁄4 cup.
(*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)
Kim O'Donnel is a trained chef, nationally recognized online food personality and longtime journalist. She is also the author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook and the forthcoming Meat Lover’s Holiday Table, and the founder of Canning Across America.