Flash in the pan

Great scapes

Recipe: Stir-fried scapes with pork


I once took a train from Beijing to Siberia. We left the station early in the morning, crawling slowly behind factories, past thousands of people outside doing synchronized tai chi before work. I decided to find a dining car and have some breakfast.

There was no menu. You sat down, and they handed you food. My plate contained chopped sections of plant stem, stir-fried with slabs of pork in a brown sauce. With rice, of course. As we rumbled through the outskirts of Beijing, more and more of the landscape was farmland. I figured some of that land was garlic, and I knew from my plate that the scapes were up in northern China.

Garlic is my favorite crop to grow. If you plant enough, you can eat it every day. And out in the field, there is never a dull moment. The plants are in the ground from fall until summer, leaving a short window between harvest and planting. 

Now, with the solstice upon us, the garlic harvest begins, in the form of bunches of green, glorious, curly scapes.

These whimsical flowering stalks can act as a spice, a vegetable, an edible skewer or a decorative centerpiece. Cooked whole, they resemble spears of coiled asparagus, a shape that is tricky to dunk into sauce and wrangle into your mouth with any dignity. So, rather than making scapes the star of a meal, I usually chop them into bite-sized pieces if I want the vegetable or mince them if I want the spice. As with all garlic, cooking will soften the flavor.

I still have a handful of bulbs left from last year’s harvest. They are soft, with green shoots in the middle. I may not get to them now that I have new scapes to work with.

Growers pick the scapes so the plant will divert all of its energy into the growing bulb. Like castrating a steer but with more chlorophyll. Unharvested, the scape will curl around twice like a cartoon pig’s tail. And then, over a period of weeks, it will uncurl, stand up tall and bloom into a purple flower that’s shaped like an exploding firework. If you have some garlic in the ground, it’s worth letting a few plants flower just for the beautiful spectacle.

But just a few. Harvest the rest, because big bulbs are where it’s at. You can snap or snip them, but I prefer to harvest scapes the way you’d pull a blade of grass to chew. Tug with sustained, gentle pressure until you hear the stalk snap off somewhere in the plant. The deeper inside the plant it breaks, the more tender and juicy the end will be. Deeper breaks will emerge with a slurp, which is appropriate, as the deepest parts are as tender as sushi.

Farmers markets will be full of scapes in the coming weeks. When shopping, the most important thing to look at is the broken end of the scape. If harvested young, the end will be appropriately tender. But if the scape was allowed to curl around once or twice, the cut end may very well be woody and will have to be trimmed before it can be used, as with asparagus.

With scapes in hand, the possibilities are endless, as with garlic bulbs. They’re spicy when raw but not as feisty as cloves, which allows you to munch on them along with something hearty like hard cheese or sausage — or smoked Copper River sockeye belly, if you have friends like I do. When cooked, scapes are sweet and mellow, without the bitterness a clove can deliver. Many a great meal has started with chopped scapes in a pan with oil, butter or bacon. It could be fried rice, fried eggs or a frittata. You can even use a blender to make scape pesto with olive oil, cheese and nuts. 

Stir-fried scapes with pork

This dish can be served vegetarian-style by simply skipping the pork.

Serves 4

  • 1/2 pound pork, cut into slices no more than 1/2-inch thick. Don’t trim the fat. You can use bacon.
  • 1 bunch of scapes with the tips trimmed off and, if necessary, woody ends cut off the bases, chopped into sections of an inch or less.

Sauce ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon each soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon each fish sauce, hoisin sauce, hot sauce, toasted sesame oil, brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 onion, sliced and teased apart
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cubic inch ginger, peeled and sliced

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the sauce ingredients.

Heat a pan on medium/high heat and brown the pork, stirring often. When it’s well cooked and delicious-looking, add the scapes. Stir-fry for two to five minutes, then add the sauce. Stir it in and bring to a simmer. Serve with rice.


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