Garlic scapes spur escape from typical pesto

The garden devoid of garlic for the first time in several years, I’m feeling pangs not for the cloves but for the scapes.

Anyone who’s grown garlic — we skipped it this year — knows it’s a long crop, one that starts in the fall and doesn’t come to fruition until early summer. Just before the plants are harvested for their bulbs, warmer weather spurs them to flower, and the stem that extends the blossom skyward is known as a scape. (See the photo below.)

Who cares, right? Many gardeners break off the scapes and discard them, believing that the plant conserves its energy for the bulbs if it isn’t allowed to flower. My mother-in-law, who spearheads our garden can’t understand why I’m compelled to eat the garlic scapes. Still, she gathers them for me and hands them over in curlicue bouquets.

They’re in a word delicious. Moist and juicy, garlic scapes lack the fibrous texture of scallion greens. But they can be thinly sliced like a scallion and scattered over any number of dishes or sautéed and combined with other vegetables and grains. A personal favorite treatment is in fried rice.

Pesto is one way for the uninitiated to become acquainted with garlic scapes. The formula is easy, basically replacing the garlic in a classic pesto with about double the weight of scapes, which have a much milder flavor. A vibrantly green, pungently fresh condiment is the result.

Here’s a recipe from the Chicago Tribune that spotlights scapes with a dry-braised breast of chicken. Without any oil and minimal seasonings, this technique steams the meat with a few aromatics in an otherwise dry pot. Improbably, the chicken retains its moisture, staunchly resisting overcooking. The simply savory result is a backdrop for the scapes’ intense flavor.

Look for garlic scapes over the next few weeks at farmers markets and specialty stores.

Tribune News Service photo

Escapist Chicken

2 teaspoons plus 6 tablespoons olive oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 1 3/4 pounds total)

Kosher salt, as needed

2 carrots, peeled, cut in large chunks

2 ribs celery, cut in large chunks

1 bay leaf

10 garlic scapes, tender green portion only, bulbs trimmed away (about 4 ounces total)

1 ounce (1 loosely packed cup) basil leaves

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 400 F. Rinse the chicken and pat dry.

Choose a large, heavy, oven-safe pot with a lid (cast-iron would do nicely) that can fit chicken in a single layer. Coat bottom of pan with 2 teaspoons of the oil. Rub a little oil on chicken breasts, sprinkle them with 1 teaspoon salt, and fit them into pot. Add the carrots, celery, bay leaf and 1 of the garlic scapes, cut in half. Cover pot, slide into oven and cook until chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 F, for about 22 minutes.

Meanwhile, make scape pesto. Cut remaining scapes into 2-inch lengths. Pile 1 cup scapes and all remaining ingredients — the 6 tablespoons oil, the basil, zest, juice and Parmesan into food processor bowl. Sprinkle in 1/2 teaspoon salt. Swirl completely smooth, for 1 to 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl. Taste and add salt if needed. (Makes about 1 cup pesto.)

When chicken is done, remove it to a cutting board and slice thinly. Spread each of 4 plates with 2 to 3 tablespoons brilliant green pesto. Arrange chicken slices on top. Scrape remaining pesto into a bowl to serve alongside.

Makes 4 servings.

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