Jane Says: Taste the Green Side of Garlic and Onions

In early spring, it can be tempting to eat little more than young alliums.

(Photo: Kevin Summers)

May 6, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

The farmers market is full of young garlic and spring onions right now. What should I do with them in the kitchen?

Lauren Randall

Although ramps are heralded this time of year, I tend to find other spring alliums—specifically, the first fresh garlic, onions, and shallots—more inspiring and versatile. Juicy and with nuanced sweet-sharp flavors, they ground everything I cook completely in the season. The reason is that they’re young bulbs that have just been pulled from the soil, unlike the mature garlic, onions, and shallots we take for granted the rest of the year. After harvest, those mature bulbs are cured—that is, allowed to dry so their stalks wither and the skins contract. Curing results in a thick, tight outer layer that protects the bulbs during winter storage.

Green Garlic

At its earliest stage, harvested to thin the field and before the head of cloves forms, green garlic looks similar to a scallion, except the leaves are flat, not round. Once you peel off the tough outer sheath, simply chop and use both the white and pale-green parts. Green garlic, also called spring garlic, is not the same as garlic scapes, which are the flowering stalks farmers cull from hardneck garlic varieties to promote bulb growth. Garlic scapes make a terrific pesto, and you can use them like green garlic, but their whippy, curlicue stems are so beautiful, I often can’t bear to eat them. I put them in a vase of water like any other spring bouquet.

Once green garlic gets a bit more mature, its leaves and stalk become more fibrous (and destined for the compost pail), but the cloves it has formed are succulent and tender; remove and discard the thickened, moist skin around them before using. Even though the cloves are mild, you’ll see how their flavor has developed in comparison with the younger version.

At either growth stage, green garlic is so fresh tasting, you can throw caution to the wind and use lots and lots of it (the same is true of scapes). I add it to vinaigrettes oand stir-fries, or fold it into the buttery insides of a steaming-hot baked potato. This time of year, it’s the first ingredient I reach for when sautéing spinach or quick-braising kale.

And it is absolutely sensational with broccoli rabe, especially when the broccoli rabe been overwintered—that is, planted outside late in 2014 and harvested now. It has a deep, minerally sweetness and is a wonderful introduction to so-called bitter greens for anyone who’s leery of them.

The prep takes no time: I trim the tiniest bit off the broccoli rabe stems, whack the stems and leaves crosswise into thirds for more manageable mouthfuls, and give everything a good rinse. Because overwintered broccoli rabe is so fresh and tender, I don’t bother to blanch it before sautéing it, but if I’m using supermarket broccoli rabe (which generally is tougher and has more of a bite), I find blanching it for a minute or so beneficial.

If you have green garlic and broccoli rabe in the house, supper can be on the table in no time flat. I generally start off by sautéing plenty of chopped green garlic in olive oil with some red-pepper flakes. Then I add the broccoli rabe and cook it until it’s silky and juicy. This is terrific as is, shoveled over pasta and topped with Parmesan, toasted bread crumbs, or a fried egg. If you want to take more time, serve the garlicky greens alongside polenta and roast chicken or broiled sausages. If you make the greens even juicier by adding a little chicken or vegetable broth to the pan, try doing what cookbook author Roy Finamore does: Serve in shallow soup plates over thick slices of toasted bread spread with Gorgonzola dolce.

And in what’s become a springtime tradition at our house, I put a lavish amount of green garlic in a chimichurri sauce for flank steak. Instead of overwhelming the cilantro and parsley, it somehow enriches the herbs, and the result is lush and verdant. I could eat it on cornflakes.

Spring Onions

These are young common onions, sometimes called green onions, with lanky, adolescent-looking leaves; the size of the bulbs depends on how long the plants remain in the ground. If you’re wondering about the difference between green onions and scallions, a scallion, which is a long, slim type of onion, will never develop a bulb, no matter how mature it becomes.

It’s fair to say, however, that one cook’s green onion is another cook’s scallion, but what I consider green onions are more robust than scallions. To see what I mean, check out the cover art on Booker T. & the M.G.’s first album while listening to the title cut.

Spring onions cook quickly, so they’re an ideal building block for many sautés. You can also cut them into thin slices, cook with asparagus or blanched fresh fava beans (more about those in a forthcoming column), spoon over pasta, and top with Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. Or cut them in half lengthwise (including the leaves, after trimming off any battered bits), toss them in olive oil, and pan-roast until tender. If you’re in the mood to throw a party, there is always a Catalan-style calçotada—or simply your backyard grill and plenty of romesco sauce.

Spring Shallots

The shallot isn’t a separate allium species but a variety of onion that freely multiplies, forming clusters of several lateral bulbs. Spring shallots are sold with the greens still attached. Even when young, shallots have a more complex sweetness than common onions do; their flavor is subtle and intense at the same time. The skin on the spring bulbs is relatively loose and easy to peel, unlike the tight-fitting (and fiddly to remove) skin on mature bulbs.

Finely chopped spring shallots are the basis for a great vinaigrette; just add champagne vinegar, a spritz of fresh lemon juice, and a mild extra-virgin olive oil. A heap of thinly sliced shallots, barely cooked with butter, and a drizzle of balsamic or sherry vinegar is an easy way to elevate burger night. And flash-frizzled in olive oil and butter, the shallots add great texture and an almost meaty savor to a warm potato salad with thyme or tarragon, or a bowl of lentil soup.

One last note: Spring garlic, onions, and shallots are perishable, so refrigerate them. Wrapped in a slightly damp kitchen towel and stored in the vegetable crisper, they should last a week or longer. If you need to use them up, cook them all together in one big delicious-smelling tangle and use as a topping for pizza. Mozzarella and thinly sliced prosciutto are my embellishments of choice, but the possibilities are endless.