Green garlic is young and soft, lacking the papery cured skin that keeps the cloves of end-of-season garlic from getting nicked or exposed. That's pretty key here. The thing which gives garlic its potency is allicin, a compound that's formed only when garlic is crushed, chopped, or even bruised. Since green garlic is soft and unprotected, the allicin flows freely with every bump and scrape. Hover over a stack at the markets and you'll see (and smell). It's the cologne a cook would love, and readily available from here until early June.
You'll find the leek-like stalks at several vendor stands this year, including Weiser Family Farms and ABC Rhubarb. In fact, how do you tell them apart from other members of the onion family? The smell is a dead giveaway, but they're also a good deal denser than onions and leeks. The have a solid sheath exterior like leeks, and in some cases may be about the same size, but the big difference will be in texture. Green garlic has a more ridged, almost veined skin. The difference becomes more pronounced each week as the garlic bulbs start to fatten up.
Green, or spring garlic was once an accidental crop, the byproduct of field thinning to improve the ultimate final product, a garlic bulb with multiple cloves and a dried out stalk with thick papery skin. Farmers originally brought it to market as a test, and it's since taken off as a crop of its own. That intense pungency is part of it, but hides a milder flavor. Green garlic can be eaten raw from roots to the lanky greenery up top. Slice into one and you'll see the outlines of proto-cloves, which become more pronounced as the season progresses and the bulbs start to look a little more like what we see at the end of the season.
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It's a natural for an aromatic green garlic pesto. And Lucques had an exquisite green garlic and farro soup on their menu earlier in the season. (Bring it back? Please?) But we also adore it pickled, deep fried, and sautéed in giant slices until soft with a tangy avgolemono sauce. Its flexibility is part of its allure, and it's forgiving in experimentation. But do bring an alternate bag for it.
Select for good greenery on top and a tender but firm intact bulb on the bottom. The allicin reaction, which is what makes garlic garlic, only occurs when two compounds within garlic are released together, which only happens when the flesh is cut or bruised. Try to avoid bulbs that have been nicked or cut, or that have soft spots. And if you're a whole plant aficionado, select for good long roots as well. Fried up, the roots make a great topping for meats and salads, like small, crispy garlic fries. As the season progresses, the bulb become less mild, and more fat, and the leaves up top start to get a little stringy as their fibers develop.