Friday, June 1, 2012

Scapes: Pungent Beauty

Scapes.  Misunderstood and underutilized.  The flowering parts of garlic that, due to thousands of years of domestication, never really develops into flowers.  I fell in love with growing garlic 5 years ago.  There is something magical about separating one head of papery bulb into cloves, burying them in the ground in the fall and getting 6-8 two foot tall leafy plants the following spring.   By mid July, I’m harvesting plump, fragrant bulbs of garlic, creamy white and streaked with purple.  But my favorite part of growing garlic is still when the scapes emerge.
 They usually begin to appear in early June.  Long, slender stems that curl into graceful swooping arcs.  They turn and spiral, twisting into forms only nature could sculpt.  Perfect balance exists between sturdy, intricate stem and the long, tapering bud.   The bud can reach a foot long, alluding to a magnificent flower that never comes.  Most home garlic growers cut the scapes off, giving the garlic plant more energy to put into developing a large bulb.  At first, I didn’t know what to do with them.  I’d save a couple and tuck them into flower arrangements.  They lent grace to vases of peonies and lady’s mantel, but their garlicky aroma kept me from using them for long.  Most often, they were trucked to the compost with the next morning’s coffee grounds. 
One day, at the farmer’s market, I saw them at a stall run by my favorite old Hmong women.  Her limited English and my non-existent understanding of any variation of Hmong language never really seems to get in the way.  She’s always slightly alarmed when I buy an overflowing tray of bird chilies.  “Hot!” she yells.  Then pokes at one of the bored grandchildren helping her run the stall.  “She wants me to tell you they’re spicy,” they sigh and go back to fidgeting on their i-phones.   I picked up the scapes and asked her what to do with them.   “Eat them,” she said, and pantomimed eating from a fork and rubbed her belly, smiling.  She called to a slightly more helpful grandchild than usual.  “You cook them like asparagus or green beans,” the young woman said. “Like bean,” nodded the old woman. 
I was delighted to figure out what to do with them.  This year, garlic was awarded a position on the boulevard.  The boulevard at our house acts as a small field of sorts.  Last year I grew barley.  This year, I’m growing garlic and squash.  Last fall I plunked 4lbs of garlic in the ground and have been rewarded with a healthy stand of garlic plants and an abundance of scapes.   That’s alright with me.  There’s nothing as impressive as handing someone a Bloody Mary with a pickled scape hanging over the edge.

To pickle garlic scapes
Blanch scapes:  Bring a medium size pot of water to a rapid boil.  Working in batches, plunge whole scapes in the boiling water for 30 seconds.  Remove from the water and submerge in an ice bath. 
Pack blanched scapes into pint jars, separating them individually so they don’t get too tangled.  Stuff in 3 or 4 sprigs of fresh dill and 1-2 dried chili pods. 
Make the brine:  For each pint jar, put 1 Cup cider vinegar, 1 cup water, 2 tsp kosher salt, and 1 tsp white sugar in a non-reactive pot.  Bring just to a boil and poor into pint jars over scapes.  Be sure to cover the scapes fully.  Wipe the rim of the jar and secure the lid.  At this point, you may continue to canning, but I just keep mine in the fridge.  If not canned, refrigerate for up to 4 months. The longer they sit, the better they get.