For garlic lovers, this time of year is like the holiday season. As we speak, delicious edible flower stalks called scapes are curling their ways from the tops of garlic plants. When scapes are available, it’s like a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas to those who know how to put a scape to use. Their arrival means that it will soon be time to harvest the bulbs themselves, ushering a New Year of garlic. The farmers markets will then be awash with new bulbs with still-succulent peels.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Now is the time to enjoy those scapes, and to appreciate our first taste of fresh garlic since this time last year.
Their whimsical, spicy curls can be used as spice or vegetable. As with all garlic, cooking will soften the flavor of a scape. Cooked whole, they resemble spears of coiled asparagus—as many as two full curls per scape, which does make it tricky to dunk into some sauce and wrangle into your mouth with any dignity. So rather than making scapes the centerpiece of a meal, I usually chop them into bite-sized pieces if I want the vegetable, or mince it if I want the spice.
For gardeners, scapes offer endless delight, and prospective scape buyers can benefit as well by knowing a bit about how they are grown.
Planted in fall, garlic sets root and then lies dormant throughout the winter. In early spring, the young garlic plants shoot from the ground, leaving your neighbors’ gardens in the dust, and your neighbors with inferiority complexes that you can quietly savor as they stare at their lifeless dirt.
The scapes begin to emerge from the garlic plants in late spring. They start to curl soon after, and go all the way around, and then around a second time. If left on the plant and allowed to do its thing, a scape will then completely uncurl and stand straight up. The pointy tip will swell into a large purple flower that looks like an exploding firework. If you do have garlic in the ground, it’s worth letting a few plants flower just for the beautiful spectacle. Your neighbors will love it.
But just a few, because removing the scapes not only results in early garlic, it also makes the garlic bulbs grow larger, for the same reason that castrating a steer will make its body grow bigger. When you remove the energy intensive process of reproduction, the plant can give all of its resources to the bulb. For gardeners and market growers, this is a win-win, because they can sell the scapes in spring, and their eventual garlic harvest will actually be larger because the scapes are picked.
When harvesting scapes for market, most growers will let them curl once or twice before picking them, but not me. I go after those scapes the minute they appear, as if they are poisonous spiders in my kitchen. I don’t want those scapes to live a minute longer than necessary, because they are basically parasites stealing my garlic. I pull my scapes so early that sometimes a stalk will grow back, in which case I’ll pick it again.
They can be snipped, snapped or pulled, and I prefer the latter, the way you’d pull on a blade of grass on which you wish to chew. If you tug with sustained, gentle pressure the scape will snap off somewhere in the plant, and slowly emerge with slurping suck. The part from inside the plant is especially tender. Like sushi.
Thus, when shopping, the most important thing to look at is the broken end of the scape. If harvested young, and via pulling, the end will be appropriately tender. But if the scape was allowed to curl around once or twice, the cut end may very well be woody, and will have to be trimmed before it can be used, as with asparagus.
One of my favorite ways to cook scapes is in a stovetop frittata with eggs and potatoes. Thin-slice a potato or two into enough slices to coat the bottom of a pan. Pour a slug of olive oil (or use butter or bacon, or all of the above) and cook on medium until the potatoes are browned on the bottom and cooked through. Push the potatoes to the side of the pan and add chopped scapes. Cook them in the oil until they smell done but are still bright green, then stir them together with the potatoes, spreading them evenly about the pan. Beat two eggs, and season them with salt, pepper and garlic powder.
I happened to have some unsweetened whipped cream, of which I gingerly folded an obscenely heaping tablespoon into the eggs, but that’s completely optional.
Pour the eggs into the pan, tilting it around for even spreading. Cook on low with the lid on, checking frequently, until done to your liking. Instead of cream, one could add cheese, perhaps something soft, like brie, or something hard grated.
It may seem like a breakfast-y type of meal, but like many breakfasts scape frittata can be prepared all day long. Indeed, one of the cooler things about scapes are that they can last virtually forever in a paper bag in the fridge, long past garlic New Years. So if you’re into scapes, now is the one and only time to stalk up for the whole year.