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The Great Scape 

An early-bird special of garlic

This is another one of those columns that will urge you to drop what you're doing and hightail it to your nearest farmer's market. An early summer treat is in town but only for a few weeks, and Mother Nature does not play around. When it comes to garlic, she really keeps to her schedule.

The hard bulb we all know and love goes through several stages of growth before we throw it into our marinara sauce. Garlic, as well as its relatives in the allium family (leeks, chives, onions), grows underground, where the bulb begins its journey, soft and onionlike. As the bulb gets harder (and more like the garlic we know), a green shoot pokes its way through the ground, long and thin and pliable enough to curl into gorgeous tendrils, not unlike Medusa's hair.

This stage in the life of the garlic plant is not only beautiful but edible.

Also known as the garlic curl and garlic shoot, the garlic scape is an early-bird special that offers a milder, fresher taste that, when pureed, makes a kick-ass pesto.

From a grower's perspective, it's important to snip the scape so the bulb can keep growing; if left alone, the scape will stiffen and change color from green to a papery white/beige, resembling a hard bulb.

In the kitchen, the scape makes a great playmate, tender enough to be sliced thin and sauteed, then thrown into rice, stir-fries or omelets or used like scallions in a salad. For these purposes, one curl or fewer will do, but for pesto (recipe below), you'll need a bunch of eight or nine, which, when all tangled up in their tendrils, look like a sculpture.

It's hard to convince die-hard basil-pesto fans that there's another pesto out there worthy of attention, but I've got a little secret -- this stuff is even better. In the few years I've been hip to this recipe, I've turned some of the basil faithful into scape converts and now get annual requests for a batch of the stuff, which is lighter on the tongue, less oily and has no leafy bitterness to worry about.

Besides, you've got all summer to indulge in basil. The scape is here now, soon sailing off into the compost sunset.

Garlic-scape pesto

1 cup garlic scapes (about 8 or 9 scapes), top flowery part removed, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/3 cup walnuts

3/4 cup olive oil

1/4-1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/2 teaspoon salt

Black pepper to taste

Place scapes and walnuts in the bowl of a food processor and whiz until well-combined and somewhat smooth, at least 3 minutes.

Slowly drizzle in oil and process until integrated. With a rubber spatula, scoop pesto out of bowl and into a mixing bowl.

Add cheese to taste; add salt and pepper.

Makes about 6 ounces of pesto. Keeps for up to 1 week in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.

For 1/2 pound short pasta such as penne, add about 2 tablespoons of pesto to cooked pasta and stir until pasta is well-coated.

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