Growth comes suddenly in the garlic patch this time of year; maybe you don't even notice until they are 6 inches long. A green shoot emerges from the top of each plant, and over the next few weeks it coils itself in circles, like a snake ready to strike.
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 an 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.
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 shape that's conducive to sauce-dipping. 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. The Buddha himself would have been a great fan if they didn't make him so dang horny. 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 and 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 the United States we are catching on slowly. And we may soon lose our chance, as the American garlic market becomes flooded with cheap garlic from China. While California supplies 85 percent of this 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, California -- 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 the flowers 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 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 traditional markets. But more small-scale, gourmet growers are turning to hard-neck garlic, for a number of reasons: It tastes better, peels like a prom dress, 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 broiled antelope back strap or add a few to a simmering Thai coconut chicken soup, two minutes before serving, and watch them curl around the bowl.
If you want to find garlic flowers, visit a farmer's market or try the specialty produce shops. If you still can't find any, hop online and go to http://www.dakotagarlic.com/garlic_scapes.htm. Dakota Garlic is a family farm in North Dakota specializing in many varieties of hard-neck garlic, which means they have plenty of flowers, and they will be happy to ship you some. They also have a recipe page full of garlic flowers tips.
And 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 produce, fresh is best.
This story originally appeared in the Missoula Independent.