Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Early summer's first gift: garlic stems

Wandering through my local Korean grocery store the other day, I came across one of my favorite vegetables, albeit one that has just a short few weeks of glory. 

The long, thin, emerald flower stems that emerge from garlic bulbs at the first sign of warm weather are called "scapes," and they embody all the warm flavors you'd expect from garlic, but with a subtler, more vegetal vibe.

The Chinese simply call them "garlic stems" (suantai) and love them dearly. We have a doctor friend from Nanjing who lives nearby, and at least half of his backyard is dedicated to rows of garlic bulbs carefully planted in the cold days of autumn just so that he can have as many of these garlic stems as he desires. Which must be a lot, because his little field keeps encroaching on the rest of his yard with each passing year...

Inside a flower head
You can grow them yourself, too, which is a really good idea if you like these little wonders. Set aside a plot in the fall before the frost and plant yourself a couple of rows of garlic cloves as directed here; you'll also have a wonderful harvest of home-grown garlic in late summer!

Do note that the flower is not eaten here, just the tender stem. If you've ever looked at an onion or allium blossom, you'll know why: it's a spiky little ball, all long pins with the flowers at the very end. And then, these nascent needles are wrapped up in what pretty much amounts to a paper cone, so there is not much there to enjoy, which means in the end that what you will be enjoying here is actually the tender, luscious stem.

Select garlic stems that are green all over; even the blossom sheaths should be green rather than yellow. If they are anything other than green, that means the short season has passed and the stems will be tough. When you want to make sure, use the time-honored fingernail test: if your nail goes easily into the bottom half of the stems, they are still tender enough to eat.

Stems cut into short lengths
Once you get them home, wrap them in plastic and refrigerate immediately to stop any more of the blossoming action. Then, within a very few short days, simply rinse the stems and trim off the flower heads about half an inch down, where the stems start to turn dark green; discard the heads. 

Use a paring knife to cut each stem, one at a time. If you want to cut them into inch-long pieces, as here, start at the top and cut off the lengths one at a time. As soon as you start to encounter resistance, that means the skin of the stem is becoming tough and you should discard it. 

If, on the other hand, you have uniformly slightly tough scapes, you should think about dicing them finely. When you do this, only dice a few a time so that you don't really go cutting into deadwood, as dicing can only do so much. No matter what, if you are at all concerned about the tenderness of your stems, cut them shorter so that they will become more tender.

Cooking these delectable garlic stems is a joy because they come already seasoned and only require a bit of heat. I have suggested a Hunan style stir-fry here, with some smoky cured pork and a handful of chopped fermented black beans to provide some savory balance to the sweetness of the green garlic stems; they also are beautiful together: rosy pink, deep black, and jade green.

Hunan smoked cured pork
The one thing you don't want to do is to overpower the garlic stems with lots of chilies or heavy sauces. Let them be the star of the show. In the recipe below, for example, the meat is only a quarter of the the dish, with the rest being the beautiful scapes, and this ends up being a really nice way to focus the attention where it should be.

Meatless diners can use pressed bean curd here instead of meat, and it is terrific; or, just go without any protein at all -- I've done that many times with great delight. If you would like other things besides cured meats, fresh pork is delicious, as is chicken here. The only think you need to do is to cut the meat up into pieces that are about as long as the pieces of garlic stem so that they're easy to eat together. 

I have put a little bit of leeway into the seasoning because everything depends upon the saltiness of the meat and beans, as well as your own palate. So, start with the smaller amount of soy sauce and dribble in more as needed.

Head out to your local Asian market right now while these lovely vegetables are still in town. As Robert Browning would have written had he known about them, "Gather ye garlic scapes while ye may."

Just the right balance
Garlic stems with cured meat Hunan style
Suantai chao Hunan larou 蒜薹炒湖南臘肉 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

1½ pounds (or so) fresh garlic stems
1 cup (or so) Hunan style cured meat
2 tablespoons fermented black beans
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 to 4 teaspoons good soy sauce

1. Rinse the garlic stems and trim off the flower heads. Cut them into 1-inch or so lengths as directed above, using a paring knife rather than a cleaver. Cut the cured meat into slivers that approximate the size of the cut garlic stems. Lightly chop (but do not rinse) the fermented black beans.

2. Pour the oil into a wok and heat it over high until it starts to smoke. Add the meat and black beans to the wok and quickly sear the meat until it starts to brown. Scoot it to one side of the wok and add all of the garlic stems. Stir-fry the garlic stems until they turn a brilliant jade green, and then toss them with the meat, black beans, rice wine, and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Add scapes to the wok


No time like the present for searching out these wonderfully juicy stems. Asian markets seem to have the best selection since they have incorporated them into their cuisines; try Korean and Chinese markets first, but also check with your local farmers' markets.

Wrap the stems in plastic and store in the fridge. If they look a bit dry, you can cut off the stems and plunk them into a jar of water first... they are flowers, after all!