It's easy for people to understand why gardeners spend long days in the garden tending their prize tomato plants, but it's a little harder to explain the fanatical devotion many have for growing garlic. Get one taste of homegrown garlic, however, and justification is no longer needed: It's like comparing garden tomatoes to the imposters sold in stores.Doug Oster, Post-Gazette
Garlic scapes are the seed head and stalk that emerge in early June from garlic plants.
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Most people associate that delicious flavor with a shiny clove or a papery bulb in late summer, but for some cooks it begins with a lush green scape in late spring.
Every year, a curled seed stalk, the scape, emerges in the garlic patch from the top of the plants. Garlic growers know to cut it off, encouraging the plant to produce bigger bulbs. But what to do with it? Many gardeners relegate their scapes to the compost pile, not knowing they offer a wide range of uses in the kitchen.
Cooks harvest the scape just as it curls, when it's most tender. If the stalk straightens, the scape is too tough. Garlic scapes are only available for a few weeks and then only at certain farm markets. They have a strong garlic flavor, but without the bite the cloves offer.
As a garlic junkie, I only knew to chop the scapes up and saute them in olive oil but figured there had to be more creative ways to use the hundreds of scapes I harvest every season. So I turned to the experts.
I knew I was going to like Kaya's executive chef Brandy Stewart when she explained her technique for finding the most tender part of the scape's stalk. "I just cut off a piece and chew it to see if it's tough," she said.
Kindred spirits, I thought, linked by the strong taste (and aroma) of garlic. One of her favorite ways to use scapes is to pickle them. She combines white vinegar and water with a little sugar and salt. The mixture is heated and poured into a canning jar containing the scapes. The jar is then closed tight and refrigerated for two weeks. In their pickled state, they have a multitude of uses in salads, with fish or even in sandwiches.
Ms. Stewart's creative flair for cooking was evident as she talked about making pesto: She doesn't use a recipe, she just makes it. Some of her pestos are experimental, replacing basil with mint, ramps and, of course, scapes. Pecans, Brazil nuts or hazelnuts supplant the traditional choice of pine nuts.
Instead of fresh-grated Parmesan cheese, she favors Spanish cheeses such as Idiazabal or Campo de Montalban (both available at Penn Mac in the Strip District). She prefers sunflower or safflower oil to olive oil for a more mellow taste. Sometimes she'll add a touch of water and then salt and pepper to taste.
The mixture is freezable, and one of her favorites to save until the garden season is almost finished. "It's nice to take your end-of-the-summer vegetables and make a nice soup or ratatouille and finish it with scape pesto," she said.
Scapes can also be deep-fried. Ms. Stewart makes up a light tempura batter, coats the scapes and then fries them. They can be served with vinegar-based dipping sauce or aioli (a type of garlicky homemade mayonnaise).
I also hit it off with Douglass Dick, owner and executive chef of Bona Terra in Sharpsburg, a self-described "fly by the seat of the pants" cook. He creates his daily menu minutes before opening the doors of the restaurant, based on what he acquires at market.
He recently bought some scapes from Mildred's Daughters Farm and created an interesting vegetarian recipe on the spot. He combined the scapes with cooked quinoa -- a high-protein grain -- fresh tomatoes and some roasted garlic. He took a burrito wrap, boiled it, seasoned it and grilled it. Then he filled it with the scapes, quinoa, tomatoes and roasted garlic, along with some lightly sauteed julienned zucchini and squash, wilted kale and smoked Gouda cheese. The whole thing was baked in the oven for a couple of minutes and served hot.
For him, the scapes added a bit of freshness.
"When they bite into it the scapes are still al dente; they get a little crunch and the pungent flavor, which I tried to cut with the Gouda."
He's seen scapes from local farmers for the past five or six years and compares them to turnip greens as a food that for years was discarded but is now prized in many recipes. He recommends adding scapes to dishes during the last few minutes of cooking, just like many herbs. "When you smell the aroma, it's done -- you can pull it off."
He's discovered one thing and only one thing to combat the pungent aroma of garlic and scapes exuded by our bodies -- chewing parsley. Of course, true garlic lovers disdain such practices in the same way some bald men reject toupees.
Barb Kline grows garlic as part of Mildred's Daughters Farm in Stanton Heights, Pittsburgh's only surviving working farm. They offer scapes this time of the year at farm markets. She says they are becoming more and more popular with chefs and home cooks.
"I like them just sliced up real small, thrown on a fresh green salad; they have a delicious flavor," she said.
GARLIC SCAPE PESTO
It's with trepidation that I take Brandy Stewart's recipe and try to make it work -- I can just imagine a chef of her caliber laughing at this amateur's translation. It was delicious, though.
- 20 fresh garlic scapes
- 2 cups Campo de Montalban cheese, grated
- 1 1/2 cups hazelnuts
- 2 cups safflower oil
- 1/2 cup good white wine, optional (an addition from my wife)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound pasta (I prefer linguini)
- Drizzle of olive oil to finish
Add scapes, cheese and nuts to a food processor and begin to process while adding the safflower oil and wine a little at a time until you have reached desired thickness. Pesto can be served in a variety of consistencies, from very thick to rather thin, depending on preference.
Blend until paste-like, then season to taste with salt and pepper and mix well. Bring water to boil in a large pot, add pasta and cook until al dente.
Add pesto to the pasta and finish with a drizzle of good extra-virgin olive oil.
-- Adapted from Brandy Stewart, Kaya Restaurant, Strip District
Doug Oster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1484.