Parsnippet Garlic scapes provide a fresh twist to pesto

There are many reasons to wake yourself up on Saturday mornings and hustle down to the Cortez Farmers Market. But half the fun once you make the effort to get there is discovering new foods or dreaming up new ways to prepare familiar foods.

And it’s always gratifying to learn more about how food is grown and to meet the people who grow it.

One of the newcomers to my kitchen table is garlic scapes, sometimes called green garlic. The nutritional and culinary value of raw garlic has been well established, but what about the flower stalks that grow above ground while the garlic bulb amasses its substance underground? While still young, these supple stalks curl, twine and flirt and, if left untended, will eventually straighten themselves into dry, tough, and brittle stalks, signaling that the bulb underground is ready to be dug up. So timing is everything in harvesting these wily gems.

One of the simplest uses for this vegetable is a summer staple: pesto. Pesto is traditionally made with fresh basil, which can also be found at the market. It can be combined with scapes in any proportion to suit your personal taste. Half basil or other greens with half scapes is a good starting place. Arugula, spinach, or parsley can also work in place of the basil.

Pesto is a family favorite around our place, for several reasons. First, it’s fast and easy. If you have the ingredients on hand and a blender or food processor you can trust, it takes a few minutes to make.

Second, it’s a versatile food. I serve it over pasta, of course, but it also tastes terrific served over warm rice, salmon or steamed vegetables, on bruschetta, or as a dip with fresh veggies. Served as an appetizer on little crusts of toasted bread or crackers with a small slice of cheese, pesto is a great opener for a light summer meal served al fresco.

And then there’s the freshness factor: Eating food that is still alive, not cooked, wakes up the palate and alerts you to a rich combination of textures and memorable flavors. The grittiness of the nuts combined with the creamy smoothness of the oil and cheese alongside the toothy texture of the ground greens creates a taste explosion. The stuff is so good that I once caught an overnight guest, a close friend, eating it alone by the spoonful late one night right out of the refrigerator. She said she couldn’t help herself.

I also like pesto because it freezes beautifully. There’s nothing better than opening up a container of fresh pesto in the dead of winter. It’s also a quick and easy standby for last-minute company. I have yet to meet the person, adult or child, who doesn’t enjoy a plate of pasta with pesto.

Finally, pesto is beautiful and aromatic. Green as any Christmas decoration you’ll put up this year, it catches the eye especially when dressed up with cherry tomatoes. And the smell of fresh pesto is a wondrous thing: green, mossy, and piquant.

Included with this column is a fast and simple recipe for basil pesto that can accommodate scapes. But caveat emptor (buyer beware), you have to appreciate garlic to appreciate this recipe.

Rosie Carter of Stone Free Farms, a long-time vendor at the Cortez Farmer’s Market, has on her website a variation of pesto with scapes. She uses cilantro instead of basil along with 10-12 scapes and replaces the nuts with sunflower seeds. She also uses Romano cheese instead of Parmesan and adds the juice of one lemon. The result is Cilantro and Lemon Garlic Scape Pesto.

You see the versatility of pesto.

Barbara Lynch is offering McElmo Canyon produce at her stand, Barbara’s Magic Garden, including squash blossoms from her female zucchini plants. These unfertilized zucchini the size of your pinky sport a big yellow open flower on one end and wait patiently to be pollinated. Barbara explained to me that not unlike other species, the female zucchini plants mature more quickly than do the males. In her words, it’s a bit like a junior high school dance where “the girls are all dressed up and waiting but there are no boys willing or ready to dance.”

Pollen first needs to be collected from the male flowers, slower to flower than the females, and then sprinkled over the female flowers before the baby zuke can grow into the leviathan we see in August and September. Late bloomers and ladies in waiting ... horticulture, like art, resembles life.

So what to do with these ladies in waiting?

How about stuffed squash blossoms?

Simply take a blossom, stuff it with your favorite cheese, one that melts nicely (I use Fontina), dip the whole flower and the attached zucchini finger in tempura batter, pan fry it in canola oil and serve it up hot. The cheese will be oozing and the aroma divine, crunchy to the tooth and all melty to the tongue. Squash blossoms.

Can zucchini, the pollinated kind, be far behind?

Zucchini and summer squash, the tasty young and tender ones, will be debuting at several stands in the next couple of weeks. I even heard murmurings of some early tomatoes.

Oh boy.

The Cortez Farmer’s Market: a place to find great food. And to learn about the birds and the bees.

The Parsnippet and its roving palate will be appearing biweekly throughout the summer. It is meant to tantalize and motivate you into joining the parade of locals who love to eat and who congregate every Saturday morning in the name of homegrown food.