Food for Thought
The loveliness of garlic flowers
The first time I ate garlic flowers was for breakfast on a train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The dining car didn't have a menu: You just sat down and they brought you food. I went there as soon as the train left the station, and I was happy to find it open. A server delivered a plate of stir-fried chopped green things with pork and oyster sauce, along with a bowl of rice.
It was years before that I realized that the pencil-thick green things were pieces of garlic flowers and flower stalks, collectively known as scapes. They were at once spice and vegetable, and a perfect companion to the pork and oyster sauce. If the servers hadn't moved me along, I could have sat for hours, watching workers doing tai chi in front of factory after factory, and eating pork and scapes until I exploded.
I could have sat for hours, watching workers doing tai chi in front of factory after factory, and eating pork and scapes until I exploded.
Garlic flowers are a byproduct of the crop's cultivation, and some growers see them as more nuisance than bonus because they have to be removed, which takes work. Harvesting garlic flowers is based on the same principle as bull castration. Prevented from expending its resources on reproduction, the organism grows larger. Some gardeners, citing "plant integrity" concerns, don't pick off their garlic flowers. I want big bulbs, so I pick the flowers. And then I happily eat them.
Some farmers are savvy enough to realize that garlic flowers are not only delicious, they're an extra something they can harvest and sell when pickings are slim. But these garlic growers are in the minority. Most commercially grown garlic—the kind you're likely to buy at the store—is of the nonflowering type, called softneck, while the flowering types are called hardnecks. Your best bet for tracking down hardneck flowers are the growers’ markets happening right now, or at fancy grocery stores.
If you're lucky enough to have a garlic patch of your own, and wise enough to have planted hardneck, then a stroll to garden is all it takes.
When the flowers emerge depends on the variety of hardneck and climate where it's grown. Once they appear, the stalks grow quickly, curling around like cartoon pigtails until two full curls are complete. After a week or two, the stalks uncurl and stand straight up. With the stalk fully extended, the bud finally opens into a spectacular flower.
For both culinary and agricultural purposes, you’ll want to pick the stalks in their curled state—as the stalks straighten they become woody and lose their tenderness. But aesthetically speaking, it's nice to leave the flowers on a few of the plants. The noncastrated bulbs will be smaller, but you’ll get to enjoy the flowers.
I harvest garlic flowers by grabbing the stalk as low as possible, right where it emerges, and pulling straight up with a smooth, gentle tug, like plucking a blade of grass.
To cook them, cut off the flower's dry tip. The rest—stalk and flower—is edible. You can do anything with scapes that you would do with the bulbs, like chop or press them into your food to add garlic flavor. Or cook them whole, like asparagus or beans, and serve them in lemon butter aside your proteins. Add garlic flowers to a pot of simmering chicken soup two minutes before serving, and watch the neon green coils curve around the serving bowl. Chop them up small and fry them in oil, and then pour in beaten egg for garlic flower scrambled eggs. Or cook them Chinese style, stir-fried with bacon and oyster sauce, like they do on the trains in China.
Chinese Train Scapes
Fatty pieces of pork, such as bacon
Oil, if necessary
Garlic flowers (about four per person)
Basil leaves (1/4 cup per person)
Red chile flakes, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Oyster sauce—choose the brand with the fewest ingredients (1/4 cup per person)
1) Cut pork into domino-sized chunks, and fry on medium heat. Add oil if the pork is too lean. While the pork cooks, cut garlic flowers into inch-long segments. 2) When all the water has been released from the meat and evaporated off, and the pork is splattering its way to crispy, add the garlic flowers, basil leaves and chile flakes. Stir-fry until the garlic flowers are cooked, adding water to the pan if it starts to dry out.3) Add black pepper and oyster sauce. Stir it long enough to mix evenly. Adjust chile, black pepper and oyster sauce to taste. Then kill the heat and serve with rice.