Monday, February 4, 2013

Veggie of the Month: garlic stems

Last weekend we made a trip to the H-Mart, a big Korean supermarket that offers the widest variety of produce around, and usually at the best prices as well. As we cruised the aisles picking up such staples as scallions and free-range eggs (it generally has the best prices on those as well), I kept my eyes peeled for interesting fruits and veggies to fill the position of Veggie (or Fruit) of the Month for February. So when I spotted bunches of what looked like particularly long, skinny scallions piled on a metal shelf, bearing the label "garlic stems," a little homing signal in my head went, "ding!"

Since we'd never tried these before, I had to do a little research to figure out just what they were and how to use them. Suprisingly, neither Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian nor The Garlic Cookbook had anything to say about them, so I had to consult the Great Oracle, otherwise known as the Internet. I thought when I bought them that these might be the same thing as wild garlic, also known as ramps or wild leeks, which I'd read about before as a highly-sought-after springtime delicacy. But a quick search showed that these were actually the same vegetable I'd encountered before at the farmer's market under the name "garlic scapes." I didn't recognize them because the locally grown ones were all twisted up in corkscrew curls, while these were tied in a nice straight bundle. (Also, the ones at the H-Mart were about $2 a bunch, while the ones at the farmers' market cost $6 a bunch—enough to make me decide against trying them back in the summertime. Sadly, local and seasonal produce isn't always cheaper.)

A blog called Madame Huang's Kitchen explained the fine points of how to prepare the garlic stems, which turns out to be a more precise procedure than I would have expected. She recommends cutting only one stem at a time, rathe than trying to do a whole bunch as you might with scallions. First, you trim off the blossom (at left in the picture above) and discard it. Then, beginning from the blossom end, you start snipping off short pieces of the stem, about an inch long, until you reach the point when it starts to become more difficult to cut through them. Everything below that point, according to Madame Huang, is tough and should be discarded (although she notes that "uniformly tough" stems may be usable if finely diced). Brian found this instruction a bit hard to follow exactly, as it seemed to him that the garlic stem was actually toughest at the top—the blossom end—and got more tender as he went down its length. So he ended up using the whole thing.

As for how to use them, we decided to play it simple for our first time and throw them into a stir-fry. They worked just fine in that context, but they didn't stand out; in fact, they blended in so completely that it was hard to tell they were there at all. The flavor of garlic was present, but it didn't taste noticeably different from the ordinary bulb garlic that we usually add to our stir-fries. (Far more noticeable, in terms of texture, was another new product we decided to pick up on that same trip to the H-Mart: Sea Tangle Kelp Noodles. I'd heard about these from my brother-in-law, who says his wife has been using a lot of these as part of her low-carb, gluten-free diet. I looked them up online and found that they are not merely low-carb and gluten-free but almost calorie-free: only 6 calories per 4-ounce serving. They sounded fascinating, so I decided to give them a try if I could find any. It actually took us two trips to the H-Mart to track them down: the first time we looked on the shelf with the other noodles and didn't see them, but the second time we found them in the refrigerated section with other seaweed products. They turn out to have practically no flavor but a very interesting texture, sort of crunchy and elastic at the same time. They definitely make an interesting addition to a stir-fry, but I wouldn't consider them at all appropriate as a substitute for traditional noodles. I actually considered making these my Veggie of the Month, but I decided that they didn't really count since we weren't eating the kelp in its natural state.)

So, since our first use of the garlic stems was a bit of an anticlimax, and since we still have about a dozen of them left, I'm currently on the lookout for other recipes that use this veggies in a more distinctive way. I've found an article at the Huffington Post that includes a slideshow of recipes in which garlic scapes play a starring role, such as pickled garlic scapes, white bean and garlic scape dip, and pasta with garlic scapes, fresh mozzarella and basil. (Hard to see how you could go wrong with that combination.) But I think maybe with what we've got, our best bet is the garlic scape pesto, described in the article as the most popular use for garlic stems because it's both easy and delicious. So we will probably be trying that later in the week, perhaps over some polenta. Watch this space for updates.
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