All too often cooks use garlic with a heavy hand.  When there’s too much, it overwhelms an otherwise lovely dish. When subtle and controlled, it adds incomparable savory flavor.

Tender spring garlic might just be garlic at its best. We found some beautiful stalks at our local farmers’ market the other day, grown by Gravity Hill Farm in nearby Titusville, New Jersey, which grows some of the loveliest vegetables we’ve seen.  When we see spring garlic at the market we know we’ve fully left winter behind.

Also called green garlic or new garlic, spring garlic is the young garlic plant that shoots up before the large bulb full of individual cloves forms in the ground. At this stage it looks like a skinny leek or even a large scallion, with a pink or purple tint near the root. Though these tender plants are pulled up whole in early spring to make more room for the plants that will mature through the summer, they are certainly not second best.

We are crazy for spring garlic’s subtle flavor and seek it out during its very short season, as it is the first in four stages of growth for the garlic plant. Next we’ll await the arrival of garlic scapes—the long, wildly curled flower stalks that come from the same bulb. The scapes typically shoot up in June and July after the garlic bulb has grown larger and are snipped off the top of the plant while the bulb continues to mature. They are beautiful in the garden but a bit strong for our tastes, so we fill vases full of them and catch a whiff of their garlicky scent as we pass by. The third stage is fresh garlic, which is the just-harvested version of the familiar bulb sold in most stores. Fresh garlic is a rarer find as most garlic is cured (hung to dry for a few weeks) during which it develops a papery white skin and a longer shelf life.

Spring garlic is sweeter, gentler, and almost more innocent in this stage than it will be as it matures. It can be used raw or cooked to add mild garlic flavor with less pungent heat (and with less need for hesitation on the part of the cook). At Canal House we mince raw spring garlic into vinaigrette, or add thin slices to a potato-leek soup. It gives a nice background flavor to the delicate spring offerings—fava beans, lettuce, peas, artichokes, and asparagus—that could be overpowered by mature garlic. Look for it at farmers’ markets now through early June.