Green Garlic Glory

Ari LeVaux

Photo by Kate Ter Haar (with permission, via Flickr)
Photo by Kate Ter Haar (with permission, via Flickr)

As the Ides of April grow near, garlic lovers across the northern hemisphere find themselves facing a similar sight: green sprouts forming in our cloves. 
All garlic that’s grown north of the equator, from Siberia (where once upon a time villagers could pay taxes in garlic) and the nearby Central Asian desert (where garlic is thought to have originated) all the way to the inland Northwest (where the garlic spirits have more recently dug in), is sprouting.

Like the shared bond of financial bloodletting that American wage earners endure at roughly the same time, the sprouting of the garlic signals a change in one’s wealth status, regardless of the race, gender or socioeconomic status of the individual garlic eater. In the same way that taxes take a bite out of one’s net worth, the annual sprouting of the garlic is our cue that the garlic stash will soon be cashed. 

This should matter to all eaters of garlic, and not just the growers and hoarders. Until further notice: if you purchase garlic, prepare to purchase sprouted garlic.
This latitude-wide response to spring signals that the end is sight. The cloves will grow steadily softer in the coming weeks, shriveling as the little plant diverts energy from the clove (which is a actually a leaf modified into a storage organ) to the shoot that’s forming in its core, and will soon emerge from the tip.

Most cooks dig out that sprout; a common refrain is that the green part adds bitterness. But that practice never sat well with me, in part because I consider sprouts, in general, to be delicacies in the purest sense of the word: the growing tip of a plant is often the most delicate form of that plant. In many cases, such as bamboo, asparagus or ferns, the shoot form is the only part that is edible.  

It’s springtime, after all, and sprouts are everywhere. Horsetails by the creek, weed sprouts in the garden. Everything I think I know about botany and nutrition and flavor makes me believe that garlic sprouts will be good.  
I’ve never paid much attention to the green part, simply chopping it up with the rest of the clove. But when my wife detected a garlicky bitterness in a draft of the asparagus soufflé I’m working on for Mother’s Day, I decided to revisit the issue. (She’s the real taster in the family. I just write it down.) 

I dismantled some big and beautiful heads of sprouting Romanian Red that I’d harvested the prior summer, and blanched them separately. In that clean and neutral context, with no distraction by seasonings, browning, burning, oil or anything else, it was easy to taste how the flavor varied.
The bottom ends of the cloves were bitter, including both sprout and white part. The rest of the white part tasted like normal garlic that’s getting a bit long in the tooth. The green sprout, meanwhile, is delicious, mild, and not at all bitter. As I would have expected from a sprout. 
Props to blogger Jill McKeever, one of the few to share my view, who writes, “... the bite of garlic that hits your palate is unmistakably garlic but it doesn’t hang long, compared to eating a fresh garlic clove that will stay with you for hours.”
Ah yes, the Italian perfume. Like taxes, everyone seems to differ on how much garlic is too much. In the few days that I’ve spent researching this article, my wife hasn’t let me in the bedroom. Garlic, as the haters know, doesn’t just give you bad breath in your mouth, but in your whole body. 
The taste and smell of garlic changes when you digest it, and at least six different sulfur-containing breakdown products are produced. One in particular, allyl methyl sulfide (AMS), passes from the gut into the bloodstream, from which it enters the lungs, which translates into the stank-breath. But the molecule is also found in pee, sweat, and who knows what other corners of the body. 

Since the issue is emanating from your belly, no amount of oral hygiene can stop the onslaught of AMS-rich bodily fluids, and gases. And gassy fluids.  Chewing gum or parsley can’t hurt, but if breath freshness is a concern, don’t worry about the garlic you just had for lunch. Worry about what you ate for dinner. 

On the positive side, medical researchers believe some of those sulfur compounds, including AMS, are natural versions of “sulfa” antibiotics, which could help explain garlic’s legend as a folk remedy to fight infection. As for that stank, just do what I do: drink so much coffee that’s all anyone can smell. And have tolerant friends.

These measures are necessary for me, because I don’t just love garlic. I love garlic head-to-toe, every bump and crevice, like Pablo Neruda loved his lovers, from the bulbous, dirty root scab to the bulbils of a mature scape. 
Thanks to my new research, I’ve come back around to what most cooks do when confronted by that green sprout staring up from the cutting board: slice open the clove and remove the sprout. But maybe I do it more carefully then most, because its the sprout I want. And I want it intact. Except the scabby part, or the area above it. Thanks to my research I now trim higher off the bottom once the clove has sprouted. 

This time of year, the white part of the garlic holds down the traditional garlic tasks (as long is they are crispy enough to chop), while he mild green sprouts can be used in playful, beautiful and delicious ways, similar to how scapes can be prepared. Chinese-style with pork and oyster sauce, for example, or slowly browned in butter, on toast. 

Alas, like death and taxes, the decline of garlic is inevitable this time of year.  Especially if you identify with the shriveling white part, rather than the waxing green shoot, bursting with vigor. 
But if you can shift gears and focus on the sprout, on the other hand, the party is only getting started. And depending on how much sprouting garlic one has on one’s hands, one can either prepare a tasty treat and be done with it, or get to work. One option is put your sprouts in a place where they can grow.  

The cloves can be planted in pots, or in the newly-thawed garden. They won’t develop subterranean bulbs like they would have had you planted them last fall, but they will grow lots of spicy foliage that you can use when you’re low on the white stuff. For the land-poor, McKeever suggests placing your sprouting bulb in a dish with a little water and setting it on a window sill. 

As it grows, use your garlic sprouts like they are chives, scallions or other spicy sprouts. Chop and sprinkle the spicy, pungent greenery wherever you wish.  But unlike those onion-y shoots, garlic shoots are less hollow in the middle, and have more bulk. It’s more asparagus-like, and can be prepared as such, in long spears, in the pan or steamer. Just don’t burn it. That’s the only way a properly-trimmed garlic sprout should taste bitter.