July 17, 2014

Garlic Scape Pesto

Sure, you’ve heard of garlic. You may have even come across elephant garlic at the store. (It looks just like regular garlic, except each head/bulb is about three times the size of the normal ones you’re used to. You might even say it’s baseball-sized…) But have you ever heard of garlic scapes? Probably not, if you shop exclusively at the regular supermarket. But if you frequent farmers’ markets or smaller stores that stock local produce, you might have seen these intriguing things recently. (Depending on where you live, of course. Antarctica, not so much. And if you’re in some other part of the southern hemisphere, where it’s winter now, not so much there either.) Up here, in the mid-Atlantic/Northeast, they’re usually available earlier in the season, like May-June, but I stumbled across these (at this place) last week and couldn’t help snagging a few. Why? Because they make some pretty amazing pesto. (And if you can’t track these things down where you live, no worries. Next May will be here before you know it, and you can try your hand at this then.)

All trimmed. (If these look different from 
the ones at left—maybe a little darker,
 a little fresher, they are! 
The picture at left is actually from 
last year, and I had let the scapes sit around
 a little too long before doing something 
with ‘em.)
So here’s what they look like—sort of curly, dark green things that grow out of the top of garlic, while the white bulbs stay underground. Im told that farmers cut off the scapes in order to let the plant focus its energy into growing the bulb, rather than sending these scapes up above the soil.

It’s up to you whether you want to discard the tops. 
Some people say to use ‘em, but they can be 
very tough & fibrous, so the decision is yours.

What do they taste like? Not surprisingly, they taste like garlic, but with much less “bite.” (You’ll know what I mean by that if you’ve ever eaten a piece of raw garlic, straight-up. That sucker stings, no? Well, the scape has a slightly sweeter flavor, with no burning sensation.) And just like regular white garlic cloves, garlic scapes can be eaten raw, but I wouldn’t recommend just chowing down on a bowl full of them. Probably best cut into very small pieces and used as a garnish, kind of like chives or scallions. You can also certainly sauté them in butter & olive oil, with a little salt, and have a nice side dish for grilled meat. Cooking will mellow the flavor a bit, just like with regular garlic. (Even better if you and your significant other both like garlic, otherwise you might be sleeping alone that night. All the Crest & Colgate in the world aren’t enough to get rid of that breath. All you can really do is wait for it to dissipate naturally on its own as it gets out of your system.  

For a nice explanation of what garlic scapes are, and some very yummy recipe suggestions (including multiple variations for pesto), check out Connecticut’s The Garlic Farm. And for pictures that are way prettier than mine, check out this recipe post.

Just for fun, I’ll tell you what I did, but the truth is, pesto is pretty forgiving when it comes to experimentation and substitution. So, as always, my recipe is best used only as a starting point. A suggestion, which you can play around with and alter to suit your preferences.
  • 7oz garlic scapes, ends trimmed
  • ¾-1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese (or a parm/romano blend, if you prefer) – if you can afford the good stuff and can take the few extra seconds to grate it yourself, by all means, do so. But if not, at least try to go for a step above the green canisters in the tomato sauce aisle. For all the flavor that stuff has, it might as well be talcum powder. I sprang for the in-store freshly grated stuff, which was not top-shelf, but I must say, tasted pretty darn good. Leaps and bounds ahead of the green can stuff.)
  • 1 tsp salt (or less, to taste: the cheese is pretty salty, so you might find you don't want any additional salt. Go easy at first and add more if you like.)
  • ½ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • ¼ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (Optional…we’ll get to this in a sec)
Equipment required: Food processor

Why 7 ounces of scapes? Well, that just happens to be how much I stuck in my bag at the store that day, which I found out when I weighed them on my dinky little food scale for this post. If you have more or less, just adjust the other ingredients accordingly.
This couldn’t be simpler:

Cut the scapes into about 1-inch pieces. Add them to your food processor along with the lemon juice and process until they’re chopped up pretty well (just a few seconds). Add the grated cheese, salt, and pepper, and blend, while streaming the olive oil through the feed tube. (Truth be told, you could put everything in at once, including the oil, and just give it a whirl, but I wanted to pretend I was a real chef so I did it the fancy way.) Give it a taste so you can season it to your liking. Maybe it needs more salt or pepper, or maybe you like more cheese. You might even want to add more oil, depending on how thick you want your pesto. You can keep it thick and use it more as a spread, or thin it out with extra oil and use it as a sauce. (Or a yummy dipper for bread, if you roll that way.)
Looking more like pesto now!

After I went through the steps above, I put half the pesto in a container and jazzed up what was left with a little more cheese, more oil, and the walnuts. Both versions are good, but the one with the walnuts and more cheese is the winner. The nuts added a little…well, nuttiness, that really enhanced the flavor.

Okay, so how else can you alter this? Well, if you’re dairy-free, you can, of course, omit the cheese. You’ll still have a delicious, garlicky sauce if you just use the scapes, the salt & pepper, and the oil. Without the cheese, though, I would definitely add some nuts. I just think it needs a little something more than scapes & oil, know what I mean? Walnuts work great in pesto, as do pistachios, slivered almonds (raw or toasted), or the most traditional nut/seed for pesto, pine nuts (pignolis). If you’re a pesto purist, you can make your pesto mostly out of basil and add some garlic scapes to change things up, or vice-versa—make the scapes your base but add some basil to give it a little more of the classic flavor.

And what might one do with garlic scape pesto? Well, you can use it like normal basil pesto:
  • On pasta or bread (if you eat those things)
  • A spread to top grilled chicken breasts (or a dip for chicken skewers)
  • If you add extra oil and make it fairly thin/runny, this would be dynamite tossed with steamed summer squash (zucchini, pattypan, and/or yellow squash)
And what else can you do with garlic scapes besides pesto? How about making a compound butter with ‘em? YUM. (Just let a stick of butter come to room temperature so it’s nice and soft, and add it to a food processor with some cut-up scapes and salt. Instant garlic butter. You can do the same thing with cream cheese, and right there, you’ve got two pretty awesome low-carb condiments. You can top a steak with the butter [I could drool just thinking about this], and if you eat low-carb wraps/tortillas, the cream cheese would be fantastic spread on one that you then fill with turkey, lettuce, and maybe some julienned green bell pepper.)

Before we’re done for the day, let’s talk about the health and nutritional benefits of this yummy creation. Garlic scape pesto is a good example of health food that tastes awesome. Make no mistake: just because something’s good for us doesn’t mean it has to taste like cardboard or lawn clippings. This pesto is pretty much a superfood. It delivers delicious flavor AND:
  • Raw garlic: Practically a vitamin. It’s antimicrobial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and most important of all, anti-vampire. (Hat-tip to Liz Wolfe, whom I know would totally be my friend if she knew me in real life. =D) Nifty factoid: in terms of being anti-fungal, I am not kidding when I say an old-school, traditional-type folk remedy for (vaginal) yeast infections is a garlic clove inserted up you-know-where. And no, thankfully, I have never had a need to attempt this myself. I’m just passing along useful information for the betterment of humanity. (It kinda makes sense, though, doesn’t it? I mean, they had to do something before they invented Monistat, no?)
  • Fresh lemon juice: Lots of neat health benefits
  • Extra virgin olive oil: Good source of monounsaturated fats, and, if you buy a good one, the polyphenols that also make olive oil so good for us. (Note: if your EVOO burns your throat a little or is “peppery,” that’s a good thing. That means all the good stuff is still in there and hasn’t been processed/refined out. I’m serious. If you think you’re getting truly good olive oil in a plastic jug for $4.99, think again.)
  • Nuts: If you choose to add walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, or pistachios, you’ll get a nice dose of healthy fats, too. (And if anyone leaves a snotty comment about the amount of omega-6 in pine nuts and walnuts, so help me, I will pack up my toys and go home. [Yes, walnuts have some n-3 ALA, but they have far more n-6. What’s your point?])

One last thing, regarding storage:
Garlic scape pesto will last about a week in the fridge, and at least several months in the freezer. One thing to be aware of is that upon long-ish exposure to air, the surface might change color a bit. It could darken, or possibly even turn brownish—but this does not affect the flavor. (Think of how avocados and apples sometimes turn a little brown if you cut them way in advance of making whatever dish you’re making. Same thing here.) To prevent this, put your pesto in an airtight container and cover it (the pesto, not the container) with plastic wrap or wax paper—put this directly onto the surface of the pesto. (You’re trying to prevent it from coming in contact with air, remember? Or, you could top it with a little layer of olive oil, which would accomplish the same thing.) A neat way to keep this in the freezer is to put it in an ice cube tray, so you can pop out small amounts as needed. (Much harder to cover well, though, so the color change might be a bigger issue here. I did this last summer and didn’t actually get around to eating the pesto until the following April, and it was fine. All I did was wrap the ice cube tray in plastic wrap, and the color was fine, actually.)

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Can't wait to try this - I make pesto out of anything - although my favorite (so far) is kale and beet greens. It's great to spread on meat or fish before baking.
    I'm new to your blog and really enjoy your style:)

    1. Thanks, Carole! I appreciate the compliment. Glad you like what you've found. :)