My family has learned how to express love through food. Maybe a little too heavily on the food side, and we are still learning to express ourselves emotionally, which can lead to a miscommunication or two. Just this morning my father greeted me with oysters while he shucked them with a pocketknife. Almost every time he comes by the farm he has something for me in a five-gallon bucket or one of those orange fish baskets he finds on the beach. I have adopted this trait, both on the growing and cooking side of things, and to this day I shy away from most conversations regarding actual feelings, replacing them with meals cooked for friends or strangers alike, which to me are much more enjoyable.
I also love packing up goodies large and small from our Island and bringing them to chefs in New York city or Boston. I am constantly inspired by their creations and it helps give meaning to the products they oftentimes pass off to line cooks as just another item on their prep list. With spring here and the anticipation of all things green and sumptuous, one of the most coveted items in my kitchen is green garlic. The spring version of this kitchen staple is the perfect translation of this time of year. The smell of a green garlic stalk always reminds me of my aunt Marie, barefoot with a long braid down her back, thinning garlic at this time of year and providing pounds of long green, flavorful stalks for those lucky enough to time things right. She planted garlic for years each and every fall at our family farm and would take the extra shoots that came up in the spring for her loved ones, piling them into the back of her mini-van, keeping them cool in the shade.
Not too long ago I did not own a car, and the first few trucks I owned after I moved back to the Island were not legitimate enough to pass inspection, let alone suitable for a trip to the mainland. During this period, when a trip off-Island meant a schlepp on all different forms of public transportation, I was presented with a huge glut of spring garlic. I had about 50 pounds of green garlic without a home — and green garlic does not have the staying power of its more mature parent that comes of age in July or August. So I put out some feelers to friends, bundled up what I had in some old T-shirts with string fastening the whole thing together and set out for Manhattan. I started out on the ferry, carefully loading my two rolls of green garlic onto the baggage cart, not wanting to bruise any of the perfect green stems beneath someone else’s bags. From the boat, I boarded a bus, where I opted to take up an empty seat next to me with my satchels of garlic. And once in Boston, I boarded a train for Penn Station.
It felt like a throwback to old-time train travel when people packed more than their laptops and whatever clothes they might need for a trip to the big city. My garlic took priority over everything else; I don’t really remember having room for another bag that might house a change of clothes or a toothbrush. A short time into the train ride our whole car smelled of garlic, and people were inquiring about the source of the intoxicating smell. After a few long discussions about the glorious possibilities of green garlic I sold off a few stems to inquisitive passengers before exiting the train at Penn Station. I jumped on the subway in search of my final destinations, where more puzzled looks ensued and the smell continued to conjure memories of grandmothers and childhood homes far away from where we were.
Green garlic is the immature newborn stemming from a clove, planted the previous fall, spreading its wings to longer days and warmer weather long before peas have even reached puberty. It is the perfect combination of all the allium family, containing the qualities of a leek, onion, shallot and (of course) garlic, all in one long shoot of chlorophyll-filled goodness for us to enjoy. The entire stalk and foliage (ranging from two to four feet in length) is tender, edible and subtle in flavor. When sautéed gently in butter or oil the flavors evoke all that is good in the future of the coming spring. Garlic needs that cold spell from winter to bring out its vigorous growth and was most likely derived from plants stressed by less than ideal conditions.
When planting garlic, I like to provide some rich compost for prolonged nutrition throughout its eight months in the ground, and a nice, thick layer of seaweed to provide some of the micronutrients lacking in the typical soil here. And like many other plants, garlic does well when the cards are stacked against it. Arid and nutritionally deficient soil conditions make for small heads of garlic, so pungent and flavorful you could argue that neglect is actually a much better practice. I like to err somewhere in between, and at this time of year green garlic from our farm still brings me a certain excitement that no other plant can. It begins with green garlic as thinnings, followed by garlic scapes (which deserve their own holiday) and then we wait for the heads to form, which will then be dried and sold as the product most commonly used.
On that same trip to New York I visited the spots where I had sold my green garlic to see it paired with ingredients from far and wide. At the fancier of the two places the menu read asparagus cappellacci with black trumpets and spring garlic. Cappellacci translates directly to “little hats” and is from the central part of Italy known as Emilia Romagna, where the food is generally very heavy. In this case the “little hats” floated in a light sauce of butter and lemon, while they danced with black trumpets in the bowl with my green garlic singing in the background. I ate that pasta, filling myself with beautiful food, pride and love from those chefs in a language I could understand.