Even here in beautiful, year-round planted California, there are ebbs and flows at the markets. While citrus is overrunning the markets, vegetables often seem to be limited to variations on greens and cabbages. It's not that they're not worth eating--they're amazing--but soon the heart and palate start to yearn for summer's bounty.
The harbinger of spring, the first sign that fruit and vegetables are returning, is green garlic. Green garlic is just that--young garlic plants, usually culled in order to allow "normal" garlic to have the space to develop fully. The bulb resembles a larger scallion, with one single piece of flesh rather than the paper-wrapped cloves we use all year round. The stalk is slightly firmer than a scallion, and slightly thicker.
Pierce a freshly-dug mature garlic, and sharp, acrid, nearly clear juice will run. Pierce a freshly-dug green garlic, and a milky sap will ooze from the plant.
The odor of green garlic is quite strong, but the flavor is delicate, and not nearly as strong as scallions. Green garlic has the bite of cloven garlic tempered by an herbaceous, green flavor.
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Use the whole plant; even the cut on the bottom won't be tough, as long as the garlic is fresh. While the leaves are fibrous, they carry plenty of flavor and can be simmered in stocks to lend a muted, understated garlic flavor.
Yesterday's recipe featured green garlic sautéed simply with pieces of smoky bacon. Green garlic also makes an outstanding soup and--the Genovese will want to look away now--a floral, tender pesto. Since basil is not in season at the same time as green garlic, use a winter green such as spicy arugula or Bloomsdale spinach for a riff on the northern Italian sauce.
Look for perky stems, and look at the leaves: a couple of wilted, brown leaves are perfectly normal, but if there are no healthy leaves, the garlic may not be as fresh as it could be. It's trivially easy to peel off a layer of dead leaves to reveal milky-white bulbs and fresh-looking stems, so don't be fooled. If you see green bulbs at the top, you are in for a treat: these are garlic scapes, which die off so quickly they can hardly make it to the farmers' market in time, let alone a conventional market.
Like most cool-weather crops, green garlic's availability moves north as the date gets later; the current crop is coming from Imperial and San Diego counties. Since the furthest-north vendors come from San Joaquin, expect green garlic to stick around only for a month or so.