Alibi V.13 No.26 • June 24-30, 2004 

Know Your Ingredients

The Edible Landscape

Garlic flowers, known as scapes, spice up summer

The technical name for this beautiful and delectable apparatus is "scape." Such a harsh name—sounds more like an injury, or a disease, or misplaced blame—is a cruel injustice to the world of pleasure the name represents. That's why I refer to them as flowers, despite the fact that botanists advise otherwise. At least I'm not alone.

Whatever you call these garlic thingies, they have a mild, sweet flavor, a mesmerizing neon green color that's enhanced by light cooking, and a whimsical shape that's conducive to sauce-dipping. It's also the stuff of epic tasting parties. Invite your friends to eat garlic flowers, breaded and deep fried, or roasted in olive oil. Or wrap the scapes around your wrists and traipse about like Greek gods and goddesses.

Or better yet, Asian gods and goddesses, for it was the Asians who first latched onto the pleasures of garlic flowers. Me, I ate my first garlic flowers in China, riding north on the train toward Mongolia. I made my way to the dining car, where there was no menu, where I was served stir-fried pork and chopped garlic flowers in a mild oyster sauce.

While garlic flowers have long been a seasonal delicacy across Asia, as well as in many parts of Europe, here in the United States we are catching on slowly. And we may soon lose our chance, as the American garlic market is now flooded with cheap garlic from China. While California supplies 85 percent of our nation's garlic, China supplies 66 percent of the world's garlic, a percentage that's rapidly growing. Despite a recently imposed 367 percent tariff on Chinese garlic imports, distributors and processors in Gilroy, Calif.—the undisputed garlic capital of America—are still buying garlic from China. Meanwhile, North American garlic production is down.

The type of garlic that's usually grown for mass cultivation, including the Chinese imports, is called soft-neck garlic. One of the reasons soft-neck is grown on a large scale is that it's less labor intensive, because soft-neck garlic doesn't produce those flower-like things of which I wax so fervently. And with increasing market pressure, growers will be more likely than ever to favor the soft-necks.

The flowering kind of garlic, called hard-neck, is more labor intensive because the flowers must be picked. Otherwise, energy and resources will go to the growing cluster of miniature garlic cloves that form at the end of the flowering stalk, while the growth of the below-ground bulb—which is what goes to market—is stunted. This is the same principle that's behind castrating meat animals, like steers and hogs. Without the need to expend bodily resources on reproduction, the animal grows larger.

Thus, whether your garlic comes from Gilroy or China, if it's grown on a large scale it won't flower, and that's why the flowers are a rare sight at the market. But an increasing number of small-scale gourmet growers are turning to hard-neck garlic, for a number of reasons: It tastes better, the skin peels off as easily as a prom dress, it produces beautifully symmetrical bulbs, and sends up those delectable flowers. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on some, there is no better way to usher in the garlic season.

With these curly, stocking-capped morsels, you can do anything you would do with regular garlic. Or, capitalize on the shape for presentation points. Steam them like asparagus and serve drizzled in lemon butter aside grilled meat; add a few to a simmering Thai coconut chicken soup, two minutes before serving, and watch them curl around the bowl; or, unwrap a flower from your wrist, bite by bite, as you munch neon green garlic with whatever is on your plate.

Look for garlic flowers at the farmers markets. If you are lucky enough to have some garlic in the ground, pick the flowers before they start to uncurl. I like to pull straight up, a smooth gentle tug, like pulling a blade of grass. Sometimes the flower stalk breaks deep inside the plant, and what slides out is the most tender bit of garlic flavor you can imagine. In a brown paper bag in the fridge, they will keep for weeks. But as with most things, fresh is best.