I offered someone a clump of chives from my garden recently--gardener to gardener, cook to cook--and was soundly snubbed. Fredericka (all names have been changed to protect the guilty) looked down her considerable nose at my poor little chives and asked if I had anything more interesting to offer. Chives are so ordinary, she said. BORING, even.
Boring? Chives, boring? Humble, granted. Maybe even a little plain, but BORING? Never!
Chives taste like a sweeter, milder version of an onion, true, but that doesn't make them boring, that makes them versatile! And, although we usually just eat the leaves, all the parts of chives are edible: the bulbs the leaves spring from, the leaves themselves--even the flowers! Toss them on salads for added color and crunch or use them to garnish plates.
Now everyone's probably had chives on a baked potato, of course. That hint of oniony flavor really sparks up what could otherwise be bland. Don't limit yourself, though. If you're feeling arty, use the whole leaves to tie up bundles of carrots, asparagus, or sliced zucchini. You can cross them decoratively atop a dollop of sour cream in a bowl of leek and potato or cream of tomato soup. You could even use them to tie smoked salmon rolls. The bright green of the leaves is the perfect accent for the salmon or soup, and the mild onion flavor adds a little zing to vegetables (not to mention impresses any guests you might have).
If you're using chives as a visual accent, just sprinkle a few over whatever you're accenting. If you're using them to add flavor, don't be stingy--give your next baked potato a chives crewcut. Really bury that orange roughy fillet under a layer.
Try combining minced chives with cucumber, tomato and feta cheese, tossing the lot with olive oil and serving it with a hearty bread.
Chives are great with the basics, too. Try them with eggs; toss some in your next batch of scrambled to wake up the flavor. Stir them into sauces, into cooked rice, into chicken soup. Whip them up with butter, sour cream or cream cheese to spread on everything from toast to potatoes to steak to squash.
We may think of chives as a meat-and-potatoes kind of food, but other cultures have been cooking with them for 5000 years. They grow wild from Siberia to China to Canada to Sweden--they're native to most of the Northern Hemisphere. The Romans brought them along when they conquered England, and descendants of ones left behind (chives, not Romans) still populate the countryside.
See, chives are EASY to grow. That makes them perfect for a beginning gardener and cook. In fact, they were one of the first herbs I ever grew, in a small pot behind a college apartment. They're not too picky about soil, although they prefer a rich one. You don't even need a plot of land, just a sunny spot outside to set a small pot--even a sunny window will do in winter.
My first experiments with chives got me hooked, and now those spiky clumps thrive in my garden. I love the accent they lend to the plants around them, plus, in late spring the pinkish/purplish flowers add bonus spots of color. Chives are a perennial that dies back to the ground every winter, but that makes those first few leaves taste all the better early in spring when they push their way out of the ground.
I keep a pot inside during the winter, but I still watch eagerly for the time in spring when I can cut a few leaves and chop them to sprinkle on everything from mashed potatoes and cooked carrots to broiled fish. When you do cut leaves from the plant, cut them close to the ground--the leaves don't regenerate from themselves, but from the bulb just under the surface. Once established, you can use them (like some would have you vote) early and often: chives benefit from a good haircut.
If you have a chives surplus, or you just want to preserve some for next winter, you can freeze your chives, but don't dry them--the flavor evaporates with the moisture. You can use chopped frozen chives without thawing--they're perfect for sprinkling into cooked foods. When you do, add them during the last bit of cooking so their mild flavor doesn't melt away.
Chives may be humble, but their history is long and steady--sometimes even colorful. At one time, people thought chives had magical powers and used them to chase disease and evil away from their homes.
Maybe I should have used some on Fredericka.
Oooh. Did I say that?
About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college