Garlic-scape pesto is a fine fling for spring
Chef and author Greg Atkinson says that with the color and flavor of green, these garlic stalks are a seasonal star.
THE TASTE of spring is green. Well, if not exactly green, certainly greenish.
Perhaps I have a touch of synesthesia, the peculiar condition characterized by an involuntary link between the senses. Certainly my neural pathways overlap somewhat and I experience sounds almost visually; aromas have texture for me, and flavors are always brightly colored, not necessarily in the color of the foods in which they are found. Rhubarb may look red, but its flavor is entirely green. Spring salmon may have pink flesh, but its flavor is of the green ocean depths from which it is drawn.
Happily, some of the quintessential foods of spring are as green as they taste. Consider the bronzy green leaves of nettles as they form a flush carpet over the moist spring ground, jade-green asparagus and leeks as they rise like portents of summer; or chives, bursting out like clumps of grass, as vital as the season itself; or sorrel, that greenest of herbs jutting forth its oxalic-acid-spiked leaves in a vibrant show of delicate spring color.
Finally, consider the jade-green majesty of garlic scapes. Garlic scapes are the tall, green spikes that rise from young garlic in the spring. ("Scape" is the Latin word for stalk.) I saw them for the first time a couple of decades ago when I was chefing in the San Juan Islands; and the man who grew most of my salad greens delivered some to the backdoor of the restaurant. The shoots he brought were topped with a distinctive snakelike curl that went completely around like one of those roller-coasters that turns the riders upside down.
I was dubious at first, but I had a habit of buying whatever new vegetable he brought me. I fell quickly under the spell of these sprouts.
Since then, the vegetable has been showing up at farmers markets and better grocery stores every spring almost as reliably as other spring vegetables like asparagus and snow peas. I've seen varieties that were only slightly curved and others that were straight. Curved or not, these might be the most delectable form of garlic ever. But I'm not sure.
Part of their allure might stem from their novelty and brevity. In any case, their season is so brief that if you see them, you should grab them at once; do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars, grab those little green spears and go directly to your kitchen and start cooking. A quick bath in rapidly boiling salted water and a rubdown in melted butter renders them into a vegetable reminiscent of asparagus or tender, garden-fresh green beans. Stir-fried in sesame oil with shiitake mushrooms and finished with a splash of soy sauce, they become an Asian delicacy.
The treatment I seem to subject them to most often is to rub them down in a light coat of olive oil, spread them on a sheet pan with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper, and blast them in a very hot oven for about 5 minutes, just until they grow slightly crisp on the surface.
If recipes on the Internet and sometimes on the label attached to bundles of garlic scapes are any indication, the most popular way to serve scapes would be as a pesto. One of the best formulas for garlic-scape pesto I've seen comes from a beautiful new book by Portland-based gardener/radio commentator Willi Galloway. "Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover's Guide to Vegetable Gardening" includes a delectable pesto recipe for pasta. But don't hesitate to make just the pesto to spread on crackers.
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Bucatini with Fresh English Peas
and Garlic Scape Pesto
In this recipe, Willi Galloway says, "the heat of the pasta and its cooking water softens the peas up, just slightly bringing out their sweet flavor, which complements the rich garlicky pesto."
That's all well and good if you grew your own peas or bought them that very day from a farmers market. Otherwise, raw peas can taste a little woody. If they're not perfectly sweet and tender, cook them for one full minute in the pasta water.
For the pasta
8 ounces bucatini or spaghetti
1 ½ cups freshly shelled English peas (from 2 pounds peas in their shells)
Grated Parmesan cheese for serving, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the pesto
Eight 10-inch-long garlic scapes
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shelled walnuts
Zest and juice of 1/2 a large lemon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. To cook the pasta, bring 2 quarts of water and a tablespoon of salt to a full, rolling boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until it is barely tender, about 8 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the pesto.
2. To make the pesto, chop the scapes in the food processor. Add the Parmesan, walnuts, lemon zest and lemon juice; process into a rough paste. With the blade running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Process until the oil is thoroughly incorporated and the pesto is fairly smooth, about 30 seconds. Season to taste with salt.
3. If the peas are very fresh, simply put them in the colander and drain the pasta over them to warm them; if they are not so fresh, toss them into the boiling water with the pasta during the last minute of cooking. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta-cooking water.
4. To serve, toss the drained bucatini and peas with 1/2 cup of the pesto and the reserved pasta-cooking water in a large bowl. Top each serving with additional Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
— adapted from "Grow Cook Eat" by Willi Galloway