Specialty crop garlic scapes are key ingredient in contest-winning pesto

Adam Fried was in a dilemma. He and his Akron business partner Merrie Casteel had just bought 1,500 pounds of garlic scape but couldn’t find a cold storage facility to store the curly green stalks, which grow out of a garlic bulb and can be minced into recipes.

“Apparently no one wanted to store pallets of garlic scapes because no one would return our phone calls,” said Fried, who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” and wanted to market the garlic scape pesto Casteel had created. Since garlic scapes have a short growing season (about three weeks in spring), the two bought all the scapes they could find in the Akron area and planned to freeze them.

Their search for long-term storage led them to the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen in Bowling Green. The commercially licensed kitchen works in conjunction with the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT) to provide technical assistance to new and growing food businesses. It was there that Fried learned about the Ohio Signature Food Contest sponsored by CIFT and Ohio Farm Bureau. Fried knew winning the contest would jump-start marketing of their garlic scape pesto and garlic scape hummus. He and Casteel had gotten a taste of all the rules and regulations involved with selling a product when they took a canning class and learned about the dangers of botulism, a rare but serious type of food poisoning.

“When it comes to working with food, there’s no messing around. We realized quickly we needed to do it right the first time and not mess it up,” said Fried, owner of Simply Color Lab, a web-based printing company for professional photographers.

Fried and Casteel ended up co-winners of the contest with their garlic scape pesto. The other winners were Kathleen Hanover and her husband Kaden Harris of Dayton with their Indian Creek Corn Whiskey Mustard (their recipe was profiled in the September/October edition of Our Ohio).

During a ceremony at the Ohio State Fair, CIFT Vice President Rebecca Singer praised the taste and marketability of the garlic pesto, saying it can be used on crackers, in salads and on grilled food.

“A little goes a long way” was how Judith Leisenring described the pesto, which also contains pine nuts and Parmesan cheese. She and her husband, Budd, run BJ Gourmet Garlic Farm in Mogadore and sold a truckload of garlic scapes to Fried. Like other garlic farmers, the Leisenrings cut the scapes off to increase the size of their garlic bulbs. For years, the Carroll County Farm Bureau couple have been selling scapes, which have a milder garlic taste than garlic buds and freeze so well they are still crunchy when thawed. They’ve sold the scapes to Asian food stores and at farmers markets, which is where Fried first discovered them. A self-described foodie, Fried was intrigued by the scapes and after Casteel made a pesto with them, he was smitten.

“I took one bite and said ‘Oh my god, this is the best I’ve ever eaten,’” he recalled. While there are numerous garlic scape pesto recipes on the Internet, Fried couldn’t find anything commercially made and quickly recognized the potential. With scapes available only once a year, Fried realized he needed to get his hands on as many as possible. And he wanted to go big – really big. He reached out to farmers in Gilroy, Calif., which is billed as the garlic capital of the world. What he found out surprised him: they only grow softneck garlic (the all white bulbs commonly found in grocery stores), which doesn’t produce scapes. Turns out the purplish hardneck variety he needed is grown in Ohio and other states with a cold season.

Casteel, who is vice president of marketing for Simply Color Lab and a partner on Fried’s “hair-brained schemes” for years, believes both the garlic scape pesto and hummus pesto will be popular. The two have been busy working on their marketing plan, developing more recipes and trying to figure out how the products’ flavors change over time. Their biggest hurdle has been learning all the food safety rules and regulations, which is where CIFT is helping them.

“The most overwhelming are all the rules,” Casteel said. “But when you talk with someone (at CIFT) who knows what they’re doing, it doesn’t seem as overwhelming. It’s both exciting and challenging.”

From castaways to specialty crops

Scapes are the immature flower stalks of hardneck garlic bulbs grown in Ohio (note that most grocery stores have softneck garlic). The scapes are cut when they start to curl to help garlic bulbs grow larger. In the past, farmers typically composted them; today they are a specialty crop. Scapes are available only once a year in the spring for about three weeks and typically are found at farmers markets.

Scapes provide a sweet, mild garlic flavor and can be grilled, chopped into a salad, added to pasta and soup and used to create tasty pestos and dips.

Source: Ohio State University Extension