How Green Is My Garlic?

Searching out a savory seasonal specialty

By Jan Leitschuh

There is a rare treat available this time of year, and it is green garlic. You may have to hunt it down, but if you’re lucky enough to find it, it can be a savory treasure.

At least one local chef seeks it out. Chef Karen Littlefield, of Filly & Colt’s Restaurant at Little River Golf and Resort, says, “We use it in the restaurant like scallions and sauté it for a milder-than-onion flavor. The (green garlic) dressing is always a big hit.” (See her recipe below.)

You’ll find green garlic only in the spring, and generally only at the local level. Scout out farmers markets, or check your community supported agriculture box for a slim green, stalk-y item with a pale white bottom. Green garlic joins the spring parade of other healthy alliums like scallions and green onions, leeks, green shallots and such. It’s one of our earliest fresh produce options locally.

Why hunt down this odd, strappy-leaved stalk every spring?

Green garlic is prized for its fresh, spring-tonic, garlic flavor. You don’t see it often in grocery stores because green garlic is the immature form of your common garlic, before the bulb has time to mature. As it matures, the onion-like bulb at the bottom separates into individual cloves that then grow in volume. When a farmer picks his or her crop before maturity, there is less to harvest so, naturally, they might want to carry a crop to fruition.

However, exceptions are made because produce hunger is strong in the spring, and our local producers aim to please, prizing good relations with their Sandhills neighbors. This time of year, people want fresh flavors, and the mild allium taste of green garlic does just that.

Whether you have in mind something simple like chopping your green garlic to zing up scrambled eggs or quiche, or something fancier like Angel Hair Pasta with Shrimp and Green Garlic in Cream Sauce, preparation is similar.

Select slender, young and tender stalks. Green garlic still has its green “food factory” stalk attached. Much like green onions, all parts of the plant are edible. The topmost green is a bit chewy, so cut off over half of the green tops for optimum texture and garlic flavor. The tougher tops can go to flavor soups, to be fished out before consumption, much like a bay leaf — your grandma would have understood this thrift.

Chef Littlefield’s popular green garlic dressing starts with a stalk of green garlic, trimmed with about three inches of green stalk included, then rinsed, then rough-chopped. She adds a cup of vegetable oil (such as olive), and gives it a whirl in the food processor until a pale green liquid emerges. Finally, she adds 1/4 cup of vinegar, 1/4 cup of orange or lemon juice, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of either whole oregano or herbes de Provence, and a tablespoon of grated citrus rind, reblends, then salts and peppers to taste. Toss with baby lettuce and spinach leaves, and savor the season.

Green garlic can be used anywhere you’d use regular garlic. But the extra green bits give the resulting dish a verdant, fresh-spring aspect. It won’t be as intense as regular garlic.

According to the respected website World’s Healthiest Foods, “Garlic has long been recognized for its potential to reduce our risk of certain cancers,” and “The benefits of garlic intake for decreased risk of cardiovascular disease have now been extended to each of the following conditions: heart attack, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis. The everyday flexibility of our blood vessels has been shown to improve with intake of garlic, and the likelihood of blood vessel damage due to chronic excessive inflammation has been shown to decrease when this allium vegetable in consumed on a regular basis.”

In that case, a little medicinal nosh might be in order . . .

Green Garlic Dip

2 cups cooked or canned garbanzo beans

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Green garlic with 3 inches of stalk, chopped

1/4 cup chicken or vegetable  broth

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and pepper to taste

Serve with sugar snap peas, cut cukes, carrots or celery for a fully
healthful snack.

What is it about spring that makes us crave its fresh flavors? Is it that long winter of heavy stews and hearty meals that sets us on a course for lighter fare?

Below is a wonderful springtime dish using green garlic and other products of the spring. With company coming, busy cooks can do the peas and the quinoa a few days ahead (though the peas will lose much of their sweetness) and keep in the refrigerator.

Quinoa Pilaf with Green Garlic and Sweet Peas

(From The New York Times)

3/4 cup shelled fresh peas (1 pound unshelled)

2/3 cup quinoa

Sea salt to taste

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 leek, white and light green part only, halved, cleaned of sand and sliced thin

1 bulb green garlic, tough stalk cut away and papery shells removed, sliced thin

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

1 tablespoon chopped chives

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, or a combination of parsley and tarragon

Freshly ground pepper

Bring a medium pot of lightly salted water to a boil and add the peas. Turn the heat down to medium and simmer until tender, 4 to 10 minutes, depending on the size and freshness. Put a strainer over a bowl and drain the peas. Measure out 2 cups of the cooking water (add fresh water if necessary), return to the pot, add salt to taste, bring to a boil and add the quinoa. When the water comes back to a boil, cover, reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes, or until the quinoa is tender and, in the case of white quinoa, displays a thread. Remove from the heat, drain through a strainer and return to the pot. Cover the pot with a clean dishtowel and return the lid. Let sit 15 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-low heat in a wide, heavy skillet and add the leek and sliced green garlic. Add a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until tender, fragrant and translucent, 3-to-5 minutes. Add the quinoa and peas to the pan and toss together with the remaining olive oil for about 2 minutes, taking care not to mash the peas. Add the fresh herbs, grind in some pepper, taste and adjust seasoning, and serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Advance preparation: You can cook the peas and the quinoa up to a few days ahead (though the peas will lose much of their sweetness) and keep in the refrigerator.  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.

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