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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Sweet Stalk

Think you know garlic? Not until you’ve sampled scapes

By B.A. Nilsson

Curly like a pigtail, bulbed like a phallus, green as a rain-swept lawn, the flowering stalk of the garlic plant is a luscious, unusual addition to your dinner table. Find some, cook them, enjoy them, and soon, like me, you’ll be impelled to try to grow them. Unlike many of my gardening pursuits, the garlic crop I put in last fall grew spectacularly well and just yielded a bounty of those stalks, known as scapes, which I harvested last week. I’ve been experimenting with different preparations and sharing these creations with friends; and because you weren’t able to share the delicacy at my table, I offer the following.

You know garlic, of course, as the spicy, pungent partner of just about everything short of dessert, and, even then, you haven’t truly experienced its flavor until you’ve tried garlic ice cream. Garlic is part of the onion family (Alliaceae) and carries its own moniker, Allium sativum. What we’re looking at is a variety known as hardneck garlic (or top-setting garlic, or serpent garlic), which is where you’ll find the coiling scape stalk.

Let’s dive into The Complete Book of Garlic by Ted Jordan Meredith (Timber Press), where we learn:

“The scape supports the inflorescence, called an umbel. As is typical of aliums, the umbel constitutes garlic’s flowering parts with the numerous flowers connected at a common point and forming a globe shape. Within the umbel numerous bulbils grow among its flowers, ranging in size from a grain of rice to a sugar pea. Depending on the cultivar, the umbel may contain several to more than a hundred bulbils. Bulbils are like miniature garlic cloves, and like cloves, they can be planted and eventually develop into bulbs.”

The challenge for the scape fan is to pluck them off the stalk at the right moment for maximum flavor and tenderness. Ideally, this is before the tendril starts curling, which gives you the stalk at its most tender—but then you have a short, short-lived scape. I like to pick them when the scapes have started to curl, with the more ambitious of them performing a full circle or more. The curve is a product of irregular cell growth, and it eventually evens out, producing a fat umbel on a straight, stiff stalk. So you want to grab them before they uncurl.

Much of the stalk is too tough to chew raw, but only a light measure of cooking is required to tenderize the tendril. Trim the very top, the tip of which may be browning, and, at the opposite end, cut off any part of the stalk that’s still significantly yellow. If the scape is still very long, you might want to halve it for easier serving. Steaming is the most straightforward preparation; season with a little salt and pepper. More complexity is revealed if you give the scapes a quick sautée instead of or in addition to steaming. There’s a strong temptation (in my house at least) to add butter. Resist it. The flavor is amazing without it. Tease out the richest flavor potential by grilling your scapes. Marinate them in a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, give them appropriate grill-top time (flip them once), and you’ll have something even better than fresh grilled asparagus, in large part because scapes have their own built-in garlic flavor.

For eye appeal, decorate the presentation dish with a contrasting color. I made a batch recently that I finished with roasted red peppers tossed with chopped anchovies. And save the bits you trimmed off. There’s an excellent pesto waiting when you combine them with parmesan cheese and pine nuts in a little olive oil.

Although scapes are a short-season delicacy, they store well, especially if you pick them while they’re curly. Refrigerate them in an airtight container and you’ll get a few weeks out of them. Or pickle them. You need nothing fancier than good vinegar, into which you’ll plunge your steamed scapes. Hot peppers? I’ll add some, thanks. Can them, store them—plunge into them in midwinter.

Picking scapes has the added benefit of strengthening the bulb, which gets the growth energy that would otherwise have been directed elsewhere. Unfortunately, scapes have only recently been added to the nouvelle American diet, so they’re not always easy to find (and it’s horrible to think of them mulching away).

Tempted to do some planting? Start by talking to other growers. One of the country’s oldest garlic festivals takes place July 24-26 in Gilroy, Calif., an event that gave birth to the Stinking Rose Restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach (and now with a branch in Beverly Hills, thank you very much). That’s where you’ll taste your garlic ice cream. Closer to home, the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival takes place in Saugerties on Sept. 26 and 27 (hvgf.org).

And if you want a scape fix right now, try your local farmer’s markets. “We don’t have any in stock right now,” said Honest Weight Food Co-op’s Karen Starr when I spoke with her earlier this week. “We rely on local growers to provide them, so it’s really a matter of when somebody shows up with them.”

This is very much in the spirit of scapes—an evanescent pleasure.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Remember Saratoga’s 4x4 dinners? Founding chef Mark Graham, formerly of the Wine Bar in that city, is now helming Mezza Notte in Albany and is reviving the tradition with fellow Capital Region chefs Larry Schepici of Tosca, Jackie Baldwin of RPI, and Jamie Ortiz of 677 Prime. Capital Region Chefs 4x4 will present four monthly dinners starting in July, rotating among the restaurants but with all four chefs contributing to each meal. And each dinner includes an amuse bouche, four courses, and a wine pairing for each course at $70 per person. The first event takes place July 27 at MezzaNotte (2026 Western Ave, Albany, 689-4433, mezzanottealbany.com). The menu includes Alaskan prawns with toasted almond gnocchi (Chef Jamie), carpaccio of Creek’s Edge Farm elk (Chef Larry), stuffed rabbit loin with rabbit sweetbread terrine (Chef Mark), and Local Strawberries with coconut-white chocolate sauce and pecan madelines (Chef Jackie). The Tosca dinner takes place Aug. 20, Angelo’s 677 Prime is Sept. 17, and Oct. 17 is the date for the dinner at RPI. For more information, visit chefs4x4.com. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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