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Flash in the Pan

The holiest of weeks: Season of the garlic flower



Chef Boy Ari has returned to Missoula after a few weeks in Bhutan, studying the Bhutanese agriculture system. If the Bhutanese agriculture system were the model for all national agriculture policies, the world would be better fed, less polluted, and many shades greener. There is much to tell, but at this point I must preempt my reports on the Bhutanese food system in order to discuss some time-sensitive material here at home. Namely, the garlic has begun to flower.

As of press time, the tips of the flowers in my garlic patch were just creeping out of the tops of the plants. Over the next few weeks, this flower will curl around like a cartoon pig’s tail, and then uncurl and stand straight up. It’s neat to watch all of this curling and uncurling—a field of garlic flowers is a thing of beauty. If the calendar were designed around garlic cultivation (as it should have been) then these would be the holiest of weeks. The garlic crop is embarking on the final stage of its development, and will soon be ready for harvest. It’s time to party.

There are three crucial qualities of garlic flowers the garlic grower must grapple with and balance. First of all, garlic flowers (and the flower stalks) are delicious and fun to eat. They taste as good as garlic. And this is no surprise, because they are garlic. Anything you would do with garlic, you can do with garlic flower. Chop it, fry it in oil...whatever. You can steam them neon-green like asparagus shoots, or chop and stir-fry them like I had one time in the dining car of a train across northern China. Everyone is doing it.

The second crucial quality is that, according to most garlic farmers, if you pick the flower then the plant can focus all of its resources on the bulb, and the bulb will grow larger. The few who disagree, disagree strongly, claiming that picking flowers doesn’t make a difference in bulb size. The debate rages on.

At this point you may be thinking, “Well, this is a no-brainer. Pick the flowers and eat them, and they will taste good. And the bulbs will probably get bigger.” Indeed, if it were that simple, there would be nothing to lose.

But there is the third crucial quality, which throws a wrench into this plan. Research has shown that if you leave the flower on the plant until the stalk gets woody, then the bulbs will store longer. Again, many people disagree on this point, but in times of doubt I follow the lead of garlic guru Ron England, who wrote the definitive book, Growing Great Garlic. England is convinced that if you wait until the stalk hardens before picking the flower, the bulb gets harder too. Thus, England picks his flowers when the stalk begins to uncurl and stand up.

The only problem is, once the flowers turn woody, they are not as tender and juicy to eat. So how do you have your big bulb, eat your flower too, and keep eating garlic into next year?

Well, first check and make sure that your garlic even has a flower, because some garlic—called softneck garlic—doesn’t. Softneck is good for braiding, so some people prefer it to the hardneck varieties that are usually grown in this region. Hardneck varieties are bigger, with more uniform clove size, they peel easier, taste better, and grow really well in western Montana. I’ll go further into this when it’s time to plant. And if you didn’t grow any garlic this year, then go find someone who did, and help them weigh these issues and eat those flowers.

Here is my solution: If you have a small garlic patch—say, less than 100 plants—then your stash won’t last long enough for storage to become an issue. So pick your flowers when they start to curl, stop buying garlic at the store, and start eating your home-grown garlic. If you have a bigger patch, designate a part of your patch for long-term storage, leave the flowers on these plants until they start to stand up, and eat those bulbs last. Meanwhile, with the flowers that you harvest tender, throw a garlic party! Steam the flowers and serve with mayonnaise. Chop them up and stir fry them with chopped bacon and oyster sauce. Grill them, basted in olive oil. Pickle them in jars. Munch the flowers raw while you eat pasta. Thread them through venison steaks and broil. Weave garlic flower garlands and put them on your head while you perform Greek-style garlic skits in edible togas woven from garlic flowers. The possibilities are endless.

In about a month it will be time to harvest. England recommends harvesting when about half of the leaves on your plants start turning brown at the tips. Of course, this only applies to a well-watered patch that isn’t completely brown already.

Next week: Questing for mustard oil: Bhutanese dishes you can make with what is in season now! And as always, send your questions and feedback to Chef Boy Ari:

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