I have a love/hate relationship with farmers markets.
I know I’m supposed to love them; and I mostly do. Put me in the middle of a well-run market, and I’m like a kid in a candy store. I become positively exuberant, and I want to buy it all and cook absolutely everything. So much gorgeous food! So many possibilities! Unusual herbs! Mushrooms! Cherries! Zucchini blossoms! Honey! Giant flowers! Peaches!
But on the other hand, I live in Chicago. Average travel time from my house to anywhere is one hour. Factor in the two hour round trip, plus browsing time, and you’re coming dangerously close to half a work day. I may love food and all things culinary with every fibre of my being, but that’s a significant commitment for some flippin’ vegetables.
Despite the seeming glut of farmers markets scattered throughout the city, I’ve found precious few worth a repeat visit, and none are very close to me. One market opened this year within walking distance of my house, but featured a conspicuous lack of vegetables. As in, no vegetables. None. This is not a joke.
And besides, I never have cash. Sometimes I wish farmers would accept credit cards.
But every so often, I make the trek to one of the better markets, and I tell myself that I should really do it more often. I always find something unusual, something to spark my frenzied imagination. The last time I went was a few weeks ago, my first market outing of the year. In the midst of my awed wandering, I came across a plastic bin filled with a tangled bramble of green curls, each topped with a pale green flower bud. Maybe you’re familiar with them, but I had never seen such a thing before.
The lady behind the table called them garlic scapes, and though I had no idea what they were, I knew I had to have some. She said to “use them wherever you’d use garlic,” and no amount of pressing for further details would divulge more information. I bagged a selection of slender scapes, with the idea that the smaller they were, the more tender and sweeter they would be, and went on my way.
As it turns out, garlic scapes are the shoots that come out of garlic bulbs, which must be cut off to allow the bulb to fully mature. Previously, they had mostly been thrown away as trash; but some genius recently realized their delicious (and money-making) potential, and began selling them. And not that I get to so many farmers markets, but word on the street is that scapes are the new ramps. Hot stuff, you see.
Back home with my wealth of scapes (16, to be exact), I set out to find the best possible showcase for the pungently fragrant spirals. Some recipes called for sautéing, which seemed an appropriate way to display their sweeping curves; but a surprising number of pesto recipes turned up as well. I decided to prepare half as pesto, and sauté the other half to serve over homemade pasta.
The pasta dish turned out well enough; with the fresh shell peas I had also brought home from the market, a few capers, and other goodness (lemon and mascarpone) tossed in at whim, the plate had a green, spring-like vibrance. A dusting of paprika added a necessary spice, and pretty pop of color. But the intended star ingredient, the scapes, seemed to have lost much of their bright garlic flavor upon being cooked. They dulled, and became little more than a tough scallion. The peas took center stage, which wasn’t a bad thing, but wasn’t quite what I was going for.
Luckily, the pesto was a much greater success. A mere eight scapes transformed into a jar of some of the most flavorful, brilliant pesto I’ve ever tasted. Their raw pungency lent the perfect level of garlic flavor, without any bitterness whatsoever, while their herbal qualities belied a total lack of basil, or any other leaf. A quick spin in the food processor with walnuts and almonds, a handful of parmesan, and a bit of olive oil, and I had the ideal staging to flaunt my scapes.
My recommendation, then, is to buy as many scapes as you can get your hands on, assuming you can still find some. Make the lot into pesto, and freeze what you won’t use in a week. Then, when the depth of winter comes, and you’d just about kill for a taste of a real summer tomato or spring pea, thaw a cube or two in your white bean soup, or mix it with olive oil to dip a crusty bread in. And if that won’t warm you inside and out, I don’t think anything will.
Garlic Scape Pesto
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan
Makes about 1 cup
To prepare scapes, cut off the tough, woody bit at the bottom of the stem (simmer those in broth for a treat). I blended up the pale green flowery parts in the pesto with no problems, but discard those if you plan on sautéing them, as they can be tough. Feel free to substitute any sort of nut you prefer.
8 garlic scapes, cut into pieces
3 tablespoons almonds
2 tablespoons walnuts
1/3 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 to 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, as needed
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. In the bowl of a food processor, blend the scapes, almonds, walnuts, and Parmesan together. Drizzle in enough olive oil to make a smooth paste. Scrape the bowl as needed. Add the lemon juice, and season with the salt and pepper to taste. Blend until thoroughly mixed.
2. Store pesto in a jar, covered with a thin layer of additional olive oil to prevent browning; or freeze pesto in ice cube trays until solid, then store tightly wrapped in the freezer.