Garlic Scape Pesto

by Maja Lukic


Midsummer. Slow heat. I have not been cooking much and, accordingly, today's recipe requires no cooking. What I'm feeling these days is alt-pesto, as in pesto without basil, pesto without cheese. Kale, collard green, or plain nut pesto. Anything alternative or unusual is welcome. And I do not eat my pesto with pasta, which dilutes its raw, pungent magic. The pesto-pasta dialogue has been stale for some time, I think. Pesto, as far as I'm concerned, is an unaffiliated, nonpartisan sauce/condiment that works beautifully in any number of non-traditional pairings.  

Here, basil makes some room for tangles of garlic scapes, which you can find in massive piles at the market (though they may be on their way out now). Last summer, I passed them by--they seemed too alien, and I had other plans. This summer, I've been packing them into plastic bags whenever they appear, often buying more than I could possibly use.

These lovely green coils are the stems that grow from the bulbs of hard-necked garlic. Left on their own to grow, the stems eventually bloom and you can see the creamy tips have already formed, but they're generally pulled from the ground before they reach that stage. Their garlic flavor is discernible but far softer than mature garlic--analogous to chives.

There's a beautiful simplicity to using garlic scapes in the kitchen and unlike a lot of organic or local produce, they're a terrific bargain. Fresh produce from the farmers market typically has a short life. Most items, even if properly prepped and stored, will not last beyond a few days. Some vegetables require immediate use. Remember ramps? Exeunt: those things. Enter: garlic scapes and their remarkable longevity. Stored in a plastic bag in the fridge, garlic scapes will stay fresh for up to two weeks, though I have discovered that the garlic flavor deepens as they age. The stems are hardy and smooth, unblemished and relatively clean, requiring no peeling or scrubbing beyond a rinse in cold water. This eliminates my least favorite part of cooking--peeling, cleaning, and then chopping garlic cloves. Nothing maddens me quite so much as the whispery tissue scraps of garlic skin that cling to my fingers, my knife blade or the cutting board.

This is a dairy-free pesto because with both nuts and pine nuts, the cheese seems superfluous to me. And without dairy, it keeps better in the fridge and freezer. The lemon juice, however, is indispensable. I'm serious. I've never understood recipes that deploy green vegetables without at least a hit of lemon juice or vinegar. The acid is necessary to cut through the grassy bitter flavor of most raw green vegetables and to balance the fat from the nuts and oil. Use the lemon. Typically, I'll finish this with a healthy dose of Aleppo pepper because I use Aleppo indiscriminately these days, but you can certainly substitute another dried red pepper.

Give this pesto a shot. Most recently, I've used it on polenta, on avocado toast, on frittatas and poached eggs, stirred into cooked grains, on a bagel with smoked salmon, and as a dip for sliced cucumbers. Enjoy & stay cool!

Garlic Scape Pesto (v/gf)

Makes 2 cups

I love using mostly walnut oil here, but you can reduce the stated quantity or substitute olive oil. I have tried this pesto with walnuts, but I found them too bitter and grainy. The trinity of nutritional yeast, cashews, and pine nuts is most pleasing to me. but depending on the state of your pantry, you can substitute any other type of nut. The lemon juice, though, is non-negotiable. See above. 

1 cup basil, lightly packed

12-15 garlic scapes, trimmed and chopped

1/2 cup pine nuts and/or cashews

1 tbsp nutritional yeast

3 tbsp walnut oil

1-2 tbsp olive oil

zest of 1/2 lemon + lemon juice, to taste

sea salt, Aleppo pepper (or other dried red pepper), to taste

Toast the nuts in a dry skillet over medium hot or in a 350 F oven until just warmed through and lightly browned, about 4 to 7 minutes. Toast cashews and pine nuts separately.

Rinse the garlic scapes, and trim the cream-colored buds. Discard the buds. Chop the green stems and add to a food processor along with the basil, toasted nuts, and nutritional yeast. Process until finely chopped. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in both oils. Season the pesto with lemon juice, sea salt, and Aleppo pepper to taste, and process until completely smooth. Pesto will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for 3-4 months.

What should you do with your pesto?

Roast these mushrooms.