On a day this past winter when most restaurant chefs and home cooks were preparing menus for the holidays, a farmer visited my office with spring on the brain. One of the great joys of having a job in agriculture is to think days, weeks, even months ahead of our customers. In this unexpected guest, I found a kindred spirit. He was in search of garlic to plant for a spring harvest. He didn’t want just any garlic, though—he had designs on a diverse offering for early March that would provide multiple streams of income throughout the spring.
Many people aren’t aware of the ways our food products have been homogenized for easier shipping and storage, and for greater consumer appeal. Garlic is a shining example of something most people know as a singular entity, one whose identity has been narrowed over the last 5,000 years from a much larger family of vegetables. The garlic that is readily available in produce sections is a dumbed-down version of a broader genus of garlics that includes many varieties and stages of maturity, each with its individual merits. Softneck garlic, to which most of us are accustomed, has a mild flavor and produces a large head with many small bulbs, which makes it a favorite among consumers. The tight, layered heads also store well on supermarket shelves.
In an effort to differentiate himself from the mainstream, my farmer visitor insisted on the less common but perhaps more virtuous hardneck varieties, specifically the Rocambola, Purple Stripe, and Porcelain strains of garlic that produce larger cloves on smaller heads and pack a serious punch when it comes to flavor. While softneck garlic has a sweeter, onion-like flavor, hardneck varieties are spicy on the tongue. Hardneck garlics have another characteristic that piqued my new friend’s interest: they draw their family name from their likeliness to bolt at full maturity, producing a long, stiff stem with a flowering bulbil called a scape. Chefs covet garlic scapes, as their stems can be cut and blanched like green beans, grilled like asparagus, shaved into salads, or pureed into soups. Their flowers incorporate well into spreads in the same way one might use an artichoke. Kept whole, flowering scapes are a welcome addition to any spring flower arrangement. It was precisely this kind of versatility the farmer was seeking. I found it refreshing to share a winter moment with him as he pondered the fruits of a spring harvest. Our conversation made me want to explore more varieties that have been plucked from the mainstream through no fault of their own
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