Talking about chives is like expounding on your favorite blue jeans. They become such a part of your life that you seldom notice them or take time to analyze their virtues. I’ve probably had the same trusty chive plants for twenty years, and most of my family, friends, and landscaping clients now have offspring from them. I pay attention to my chives only occasionally, when I cut them back or dig up a portion to give to a friend or clip a few leaves for something I’m cooking for dinner.
Even in the kitchen, chives seldom get star billing—I make no chive pestos or pizzas, for example—but like my jeans, they go with everything. I pair chives with basil, rosemary, thyme, fennel, dill, tarragon, and a host of other herbs, and they go with so many other foods, too—just about any savory dish I can think of.
The chives I’m referring to are the common, easy-to-grow perennial herb we all know so well, the one whose minced foliage the waiter offers you to top your baked potato—Allium schoenoprasum. The slender, tubular, vivid green rushlike leaves inspired the species name, schoenoprasum, which is derived from Greek roots for “rush” and “leek”. The plants grow in dense clumps that spread quickly, sometimes to a foot across. The leaves emerge in early spring from slender bulbs clustered on a rhizome and grow 12 to 18 inches tall—followed in early summer by globe-shaped lavender or pink flower heads.
Botanists have assigned the genus Allium variously to the lily family (Liliaceae), the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), and its own family, the Alliaceae. The genus also includes onions and garlic.
Chives are native to northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. In North America, these adaptable plants can be grown from southern Canada (Zone 3) south to the Gulf Coast and west to Southern California (Zone 10). Records show that cooks have valued chives for at least 5,000 years.
In addition to seeds and plants of common chives, some herb nurseries offer several cultivars. They include the compact ‘Dwarf’, which is somewhat shorter than common chives, and the even more compact German cultivar ‘Schnittlauch’ (that’s “chive” in German). Pink-flowered cultivars include ‘Forescate’ (also known as ‘Forsgate’) and ‘Grolau’. If you are growing chives indoors, you may want to try two cultivars bred for greenhouse growing: broad-leaved ‘Grolau’ and the trademarked Profusion (A. s. ‘Sterile’), whose numerous flowers remain tender longer than those of other cultivars because they do not set seed.
The Taste Of Garlic
Another type of chives that I wouldn’t want to be without are called garlic chives, Oriental chives, or Chinese chives (A. tuberosum). They are prized for their onion-garlic flavor. Garlic chives have flat, dark green leaves that may grow 2 feet tall and clusters of white starry flowers on stiff stems in late summer. A mauve-flowered form is also available. The sweetly scented flowers attract bees and other beneficial insects. Both the fresh flowers and the dried seed heads are attractive in flower arrangements.
Native to Southeast Asia and grown throughout the Orient, garlic chives have been consumed since ancient times, primarily in cooking. In China, the seeds have also been used as a tonic.
In this country, garlic chives are valued mainly as ornamentals. Their modest height dictates placement in the middle of the border. The planting, care, and harvesting of garlic chives are similar to those of regular chives (see “Easy to Grow”, page 30). Because they reseed heavily, they can become a pest; to prevent this, remove the seed heads before they mature.
Another type of garlic chives is the fragrant-flowered onion or Chinese leek flower (A. ramosum, formerly A. odorum), which is grown for its tender flowering stems and buds. Although the plants closely resemble A. tuberosum, they bloom off and on throughout the summer and fall, not just in late summer, and the leaves are a little more fibrous than those of garlic chives. Joy Larcom’s book, Oriental Vegetables (Kodansha, 1994) gives detailed information on growing and harvesting both these delectable vegetables.
Whether on homely baked potatoes or caviar canapés at the Ritz, ubiquitous chives quietly add a subtle onion flavor to all manner of our favorite foods. Simply mince and sprinkle them into and on salads, potatoes, cheeses, sandwich spreads, dressings, omelets, dumplings, butters, deviled eggs, mushrooms, soups, fish, poultry, and most vegetables. Just about any recipe that calls for onions and/or garlic can be enhanced—in color, texture, and flavor—with either chives or garlic chives.
As the flavor dissipates quickly when they are heated, chives should be added to cooked dishes at the last minute. As a rule, they can be substituted in equal quantities for scallions in a recipe. Garlic chives hold up to cooking a little better than regular chives, and many Chinese hot dishes contain them, but because they are stronger, use a light hand when substituting them for regular chives.
It seems that I’m always right in the middle of making a dish when I remember the chives and dash to the garden. Freshly cut chive leaves and flowers may be washed, rolled in a damp paper towel or placed in a plastic bag, and refrigerated for a few days. The flavor fades when dried, however. To preserve chives for winter, you may freeze whole or minced chives on a cookie sheet and then transfer them to plastic bags. Frozen chives can easily be tossed onto baked potatoes or snipped into cooked dishes.
Another good way to preserve the flavor of chives is to steep the leaves or flowers in vinegar, by themselves or combined with other herbs. Steeping chive blossoms in white wine vinegar turns it an appealing rosy pink and gives it a fine oniony flavor.
One of the most rewarding ways to use both regular and garlic chives is to flavor unsalted butter or soft cheeses such as cream or goat cheeses. They may be stored in tightly closed containers in the freezer for as long as three months. Use the butters to top steamed vegetables or fish or spread them on bread or crackers. The cheeses may be served with bread, bagels, or crackers and used to make appetizers.
My favorite way to use regular and garlic chives is as a last-minute shower of green confetti to dress up a clear or cream soup, baked fish, vegetables, or an omelet: the bright color and mild onion flavor complete the presentation. Sometimes, however, I pass a small bowl of minced chives around the table so that diners can garnish a dish to their own tastes.
In the Far East, garlic chive leaves are used both sparingly as a last-minute seasoning in clear soups, stir-fries, and egg and fish dishes, and in larger amounts as a main ingredient in stir-fries, pot stickers, dumplings, and tempura. Garlic chives and Chinese leek flower buds are occasionally available at Oriental markets and farmers’ markets that cater to Asians.
The flowers of both regular and garlic chives are edible. Because they become fibrous and unpalatable as they mature, it’s best to harvest blossoms just as they open. Wash them well and then separate the florets—an entire flower head is much too strong to eat—and use them in any recipe calling for minced chives.
After taking the time to examine my relationship with them, I’ve decided that chives are one of those versatile, reliable, life-enriching plants that are fundamental to the style of gardening and cooking I most enjoy. I can’t imagine my garden—or my kitchen—without them.
• Forestfarm, 990 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544-9599. Catalog $3. Plants of fragrant-flowered onion (Allium ramosum).
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321. Catalog free. Seeds of ‘Grolau’, plants of ‘Forsgate’ chives; seeds and plants of garlic chives.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free. Plants of Profusion, seeds of ‘Grolau’ chives, seeds and plants of A. schoenoprasum; seeds and plants of white- and mauve-flowered garlic chives.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2. Plants of ‘Dwarf’, ‘Forsgate’, ‘Schnittlauch’, and ‘Grolau’ chives, seeds and plants of A. schoenoprasum; plants of white- and mauve-flowered garlic chives.
Rosalind Creasy is an herb gardener and landscape designer in Los Altos, California, and the author of many books. Her most recent is Herbs: A Country Garden Cookbook, written with Carole Saville.