In early spring, an unusual form of a familiar ingredient is hiding in farmers' markets. From a distance, it's easy to mistake green garlic for a skinny leek or a bulbous scallion but up close, you'll recognize its pungent smell.
Green garlic (Allium sativum) is simply immature garlic pulled from the ground before it develops a cluster of individual cloves. Rather than papery, white skin, green garlic has relatively succulent folds and a dewy central stalk. Originally, farmers harvested this early crop in order to thin the fields, creating space for other expanding plants. Aficionados of the odiferous bulb soon fell in love with the irresistible flavor of green garlic: herbal, grassy, and just a little bit smoky. Because the bulbs spend less time swelling in the soil, they accumulate fewer sulfurous molecules and therefore have only a subtle fieriness. Try using abundant green garlic in place of fully mature garlic to add a bright, fresh vibrancy to any dish. Thinly sliced stalks are delightful additions to an omelette or a stir-fry.
Many cultures value garlic not only for its culinary uses but also for its medicinal and spiritual properties. Garlic's wild ancestor probably grew first in Central Asia, from where it spread east to modern-day China -- the current producer of more than three-quarters of the world's garlic -- and west to the Mediterranean region. Ancient Egyptians cultivated garlic, gave a daily ration to pyramid builders, and even decorated King Tut's tomb with bulbs. In 1858, French chemist Louis Pasteur noted garlic's antibacterial properties and the plant has subsequently been used to lower cholesterol, reduce heart disease, and fend off microbial infections.
Seek out green garlic in famers' markets and well-stocked specialty markets or, if you're truly inspired, grow your own garlic plants by burying single cloves in a backyard garden. The most common variety of mature garlic is a type of soft-neck garlic, which has a pliable central stalk suitable for braiding. Soft-neck varieties adapt well to diverse growing conditions and can be stored for long periods of time, but their flavor tends to be one-dimensional. The other sub-species of garlic, called hard-neck or stiff-neck, can be trickier to grow but their multidimensional flavor and larger cloves make it worth the effort. They also come with a bonus feature! Hard-neck garlic bulbs sprout curvaceous green shoots with flower buds on the end. These scapes are generally cut from the plant in order to direct energy towards producing a plump bulb. Just like green garlic, scapes are a by-product of sorts, but they're a truly gorgeous and tasty one.
Green Garlic Aïoli and Roasted New Potatoes
Many French insist on making and serving aïoli according to long-established customs. Garlic, salt, egg, and olive oil are the only acceptable ingredients and the homemade mayonnaise should be served strictly with salt cod and crudités. However, I find aïoli to be too delectable and versatile to limit its uses. I like to give a quick nod to French customs by pouring a glass of chilled rosé before I begin. Then I proceed to make this blasphemous yet enticing version of the traditional Provençal aïoli. It can be an inspired starting point for many other recipes: try stirring in chopped hard-cooked eggs and a pinch of cayenne for an egg salad; mix in finely chopped pickles and capers, and then dollop the sauce on fried fish; or, add in smashed anchovy and a big squeeze of lemon juice for a Caesar salad dressing. The possibilities are endless. In this recipe, the mellow green garlic flavor suits the sweet earthiness of new potatoes, which are precursors to the familiar spud. Because they've been dug from the ground before growing to full size, new potatoes have wonderfully thin skins and are just the right size for dipping in garlicky aïoli.
Serves four as a first course
1 ½ pounds new potatoes
1 cup and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 small heads green garlic
1 egg yolk
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, as needed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Toss the potatoes with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Spread the seasoned potatoes across a baking dish. Bake for about 45 minutes, shaking the baking dish after 20 minutes to flip the potatoes.
While the potatoes are in the oven, trim the green garlic's root and stem ends. Crush the white bulbs and ½ teaspoon kosher salt in a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, you can use a large knife to smash and finely mince the green garlic. Try to crush the green garlic into a smooth paste. Place half the smashed green garlic in a small bowl and set the remainder aside.
Add the egg yolk to the small bowl. Whisk the yolk gently but constantly while pouring in a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil. (To prevent the bowl from moving around while you whisk, place it on a folded kitchen towel or ask a friend to hold it steady while you pour the oil.) As the oil and yolk emulsify, continue to whisk and to add more oil in a thin stream, until you've added 1 cup total. If the aïoli is too thick, you can thin it by squeezing a bit of lemon juice into the bowl. Taste for seasoning and add salt or more crushed garlic, if desired.
Serve the roasted new potatoes alongside a bowl of aïoli for dipping. Aïoli tastes best at room temperature on the day it is made but can be refrigerated for several hours.