Garlic's uses have long been praised--warding off everything from unwanted suitors and vampires to the common cold. What garlic doesn't call to mind is a specific season. It's always available; no Southern California kitchen need ever be without it. Unlike tomatoes or peaches, its yearly arrival isn't impatiently awaited. But, as Ecclesiastes says, "To every thing there is a season," and garlic's season is spring.
Beginning in early February and continuing through April, farmers bring in great bunches of immature garlic that look a lot like skinny leeks. Harvested halfway through the nine-month gestation (before the familiar bulb or "head" forms), the entire plant is edible from its developing clove to the tips of its sword-like leaves (garlic is Anglo-Saxon for "spear plant").
This green, or spring, garlic is a favorite ingredient in Asian cooking, and can be sauteed or used in salads and soups. More vegetal than pungent, more main ingredient than seasoning, it brings the fresh sharpness of new grass to a dish, giving a more subtle and herbal flavor than the familiar taste of mature garlic. The latter comes into its own in summer, when it makes its way into such dishes as a piquant aioli, served with crisp vegetables and fresh seafood for dipping, or is chopped and tossed into a hot skillet, laying the foundation for many a dish.
Riverside County organic farmers Dede and Jon Thogmartin, who specialize in alliums--onions, leeks and garlic--grow green garlic as a separate vegetable. "We plant it in its own bed," Dede explains. "We don't just thin out a field of 'heading' garlic, which is probably how the custom of pulling garlic young got started--to make room for the maturing bulbs. We plant as soon as the ground cools in September/October and begin harvesting in February."
That's when I bring green garlic into my kitchen and pair it with foods that showcase its delicacy and sprightly color: new potatoes for a seasonal variation on vichyssoise, a subtle spaghetti aglio e olio, spring risotto. Or I cook it slowly with pale-green cabbage until both melt into sweet creaminess perfect with roasted salmon, young poultry or baby lamb.
As the season progresses at Southern California farmers' markets, the young, slim garlic shoots become fat-bottomed bulbs. The erect leaves have gone limp as the plant's energy concentrates on the developing cloves. Soon it will be time for the farmers to pull the remaining garlic plants from the earth and lay them in overlapping rows in the field to cure into the papery, rock-hard orbs we know. That's when I know it soon will be summer.
Melted Green Garlic and Cabbage
1 large head green cabbage, cored and cut into thin wedges to yield about 8 cups
3-4 bunches green garlic, about 3 cups chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Black or white pepper, optional
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the cabbage for 3 minutes. Drain the cabbage, finely chop it and set aside. Clean and chop the green garlic, including a couple of inches of the green leaves from each plant. In a deep wide pot over medium-low heat, saute the onion and garlic until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and being careful not to let the vegetables brown. Add the cabbage, 1-2 teaspoons salt and cook uncovered 5-10 minutes. Cover the pot, turn the heat to low, and cook the vegetables slowly until they are reduced and very creamy; this could take an hour or more. Lift the lid and stir occasionally. If there is a lot of liquid in the pot, leave the lid off for a while. If the mixture seems dry or in danger of sticking, add a bit of water or chicken stock. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if desired. This may be made a day ahead and reheated on low heat.
Food stylist: Christine Masterson
Amelia Saltsman last wrote for the magazine about ladies' lunches.