I have good news people. It’s twirly-dip season. More commonly known as garlic scape season. I adopted the twirly-dip nickname many years ago, long before I knew my garlic plant anatomy. I now know that the “scape” is really a flowering seed head. It’s the garlic’s natural way of reproducing. Each flowering pod contains a handful of “bulbils,” a fancy name for itty-bitty garlic cloves. If left to its own devices, the garlic scape matures and waits for its bulbils to be scatterd. Assuming all goes well, each bulbil matures into a small head of garlic the following year. And yes, humans can do the same thing and intentionally plant the bulbils, but it takes a good three years of planting and replanting the resulting cloves of garlic to get a decent size head. Still, that’s pretty cool.
Now, back to the botany lesson. About a month or so before the underground bulb fully matures, a garlic plant heeds the call to send up a flowering scape. It starts as a little sprout emerging from the top part of the plant. Over the course of a week or so, it begins to lengthen and curl around into a spiral. Hence the “twirly-dip” terminology. It really is a thing of beauty. Left intact, the curlycue will eventually straighten itself back out and shoot skyward. The garlic plant puts energy into developing its seed head – at the expense of the bulb below ground. Which means if large, plump heads of garlic is your goal (and you’re willing to do the work of the bulbil), then trimming the scapes off is in your best intrest. To me this is a win-win situation. My garlic heads grow larger, and I’m left with a culinary treat that is especially fun to cook with. Which is pretty much how I spent my entire holiday weekend. You have been warned. Prepare to be inundated with garlic scape recipes.
But first, let’s cover a few garlic scape practicalities:
1. If you’re harvesting scapes from your own garden, it is best to pick them when they are in full curl, between 1/2 and 3/4 turn (like in the photo above). If you pick them too young, it potentially shocks the plant and may cause secondary sprouting or formation of side cloves off the main bulb. If you wait until they start straightening out, the stalks will be tough and unappetizing. Trim or snap the scapes off just above the top leaf of the plant.
2. Scapes store well – up to 3 weeks in the crisper drawer. So if you come across a source, stock up! For those of you with your own garlic patch, consider yourself lucky. Otherwise, scapes are becoming more and more popular and can often be found this time of year at farmer’s markets and natural food stores.
3. When cooking with scapes, it is best to trim the actual seed pod off and use the section of stalk below it. In other words, you want to cook with the portion of the scape that emerges from the top of the garlic plant to where the seed pod starts to bulge out. The top part of the scape is more grass like and stringy. There is no harm in eating it, but you might find yourself doing a considerable amount of chewing. Plus, there is a much better use for them. Slow simmered with water, a splash of white wine, a few greens, and a handful of fresh herbs, they make a lovely garlic soup stock. I keep a bag going in the fridge and when scape season comes to an end I make a big pot of stock for the freezer. Full recipe forthcoming…
4. Left raw, scapes are tender and garlicky, but are less pungent than an actual clove of garlic. Finely chopped, they make a lovely addition to green salads, egg salad, tuna salad, any salad really. Think of them like a scallion. When cooked, the scapes become creamy and nutty, with just a slight hint of garlic flavor. Which makes them perfect for stir-frys, fritattas, scrambled eggs, and pasta dishes. It’s important not to overcook them though, as they tend to get tough.
My first scape harvest of the season almost always goes straight over hot coals. This is my favorite way to prepare them. Toss them with a little olive oil, fresh pepper and sea salt and lay them on the grill or fire pit. I use a finer mesh screen over the grate to save anyone from an untimely death. It takes about 8 – 10 minutes for them to soften up and get a little char. Turn them once or twice and when they look tender, transfer to a platter, give them a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of chili pepper flakes. If you’re anything like me, they will disappear faster than one would think possible. (You’ll see in the photo that I have grilled the whole scape, even though I just got through telling you to cut the top part off. I almost always follow my own advice, but still there is no denying how artistic the entire scape looks – sometimes it’s fun just to cook the whole package).
Once I get the craving for grilled scapes out of my system, I move onto other things. This year I decided to start with garlic scape pesto. Mixed with some chunky penne pasta, it was the star of our June picnic. Actually, I take that back. The real star of the picnic was a thunderstorm, complete with green skies, quarter size hail, and straight line winds. Mark and I had decided to take an “extended picnic” and turn it into an overnight camping excursion. We packed our picnic tin, loaded the kayaks on the roof, threw in a blanket and some books, and headed for Lake Superior’s Bark Bay. We managed to score a tent camping site on the Herbster beach and geared up for a much needed day of play.
Well fortified with pasta bathed in twirly-dip pesto, we ventured out for a late afternoon paddle on the lake. Sunny skies, slight breeze, calm waters. All good. Back on land we had just settled in with gin and tonics (car camping has its merits) when we noticed some ominous clouds gathering off to the southwest. Sure enough a few minutes later the county sheriff was easing his way though the camp ground alerting campers of a severe weather system on it’s way from Superior. We packed things up as best we could and headed for the tent, fully expecting to resume our evening after the storm blew through.
But there was the problem. The storm didn’t exactly “blow through.” The traveling warm air mass hit the cool wall of Lake Superior and stopped – for a good long while. We laid in the tent, watching the sky outside do amazing things, occasionally exchanging a silent worried look, and listening to the sound of hail ricocheting off of our poor little picnic tin
. I didn’t have high hopes.
Hours later we emerged from our abode (which was still standing and still mostly dry inside) to assess the situation. It was dark now and still raining, but the brunt of the storm had finally passed. Lake Superior was positively roaring. We learned that the majority of tenters had been evacuated to the local high school for the night. We also heard rumors of another cell coming through at 4:30 a.m. Hmmm. This news prompted us to do something we have never done before while camping. We decided to plan our escape. Mark went for the car while I packed up the sleeping gear. We rolled up the tent into a sopping heap, threw it in the back of the car and drove the 30 minutes back home. I was stunned to find the picnic tote still dry inside. We had a late night snack and retreated to the quietness of our bedroom.
We awoke to sunny skies, refreshed and ready to resume. With a thermos of coffee for the road we made the return trip back to our boats and other belongings. As we suspected, the bay was a churning chocolate brown soup and the campground was littered with upside down tents drying out (some considerably more worse for the wear than others). After a hearty breakfast we headed out for a paddle through the Bark Bay Slough – a costal barrier spit and lagoon that feeds into Lake Superior. Water lilies were blooming, dragon and butterflies were out joy riding, and we enjoyed several fine turtle sightings as we paddled our way back towards land. What a way to ring in the season’s first twirly-dips!
I should warn you that this pesto is indeed garlicky. To me though, it strong and flavorful without an overbearing garlic heat. I love to eat it straight on salty pita crackers or bread. It also works well to cut it with créme fraîche, yogurt, and/or sour cream and use it as a vegetable dip or pasta sauce. And, like most pestos, it freezes well for an excellent winter treat – or pull it out even sooner and pair it with fresh summer tomatoes. I adapted this recipe from one I found in the Washington Post
several years ago. I find it works best to use a food processor to really grind up the scapes and nuts. But if you’ve got determination, you could do it by hand with a mortar and pestle.
Stay tuned. Recipes for pickled dilly scapes, beer-battered scapes (oh-my!), and garlic soup stock are on their way later this week.
Garlic Scape (twirly-dip) Pesto
1/2 cup garlic scapes, chopped, flower portion removed (about 10 scapes)
1/3 cup almonds or walnuts
1 teaspoon lemon zest
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil (I use more oil if the pesto is going over pasta)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
large pinch of sea salt
Process the scapes, nuts, lemon zest and juice in a food processor until they are somewhat smooth and the texture is to your liking. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, pulsing the machine as you go. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides and fold in the Parmesan and salt by hand. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Makes about 1 cup.