Grow Chives and Use Them in Cooking

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The leaves are shaped like tiny tubes that taper to a point. They grow in clumps and emerge in early spring from winter dormancy, followed quickly by the lilac-to-rosy pink, clover-like blooms on 12- to 24-inch long stems.
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Here's a tasty and healthful side dish that combines an old winter favorite, parsnips, with potatoes and chives. Any leftovers can be used as a flavorful thickening for a hearty winter soup.

Snip fine-flavored, crispy green chive leaves over a salad
or a baked potato, or into a bowl of piping hot soup for a
colorful garnish that punches up the taste a delicious
notch, or maybe two.

The most delicately flavored member of the onion family,
chives have been hardy garden plants and tasty kitchen
staples for more than 5,000 years. Regular (or “fine”)
chives (Alliumschoenoprasum), are native
to northern Europe, Asia and North America. The leaves are
shaped like tiny tubes that taper to a point. They grow in
clumps and emerge in early spring from winter dormancy,
followed quickly by the lilac-to-rosy pink, clover-like
blooms on 12- to 24-inch long stems.

Both leaves and flowers are edible; the fresh blooms may be
served whole or separated into petals; they can be added to
vinegar, to which they impart a lovely pink hue; and they
make nice cut flowers, too. When in full bloom, a mature
clump is so pretty that you may be reluctant to gather the
flowers, yet removing them often prolongs the bloom time
while encouraging the plant to expend more energy producing
new leaves.

Garlic chives (A. tuberosum) are the
other common garden chives and are similar in height to
regular chives. Also known as Chinese chives or gow
choy
, garlic chives are native to eastern
Asia and are as hardy and easy to grow as regular chives.
The plants have flat, strap-like leaves with a distinct
hint of garlic rather than onion, and the delicate, white
blooms grow in clusters that appear in late summer after
many other flowers have come and gone.

Both leaves and blooms of garlic chives are edible, too,
but do not be misled by the tuberosum species
name; the roots are knobby but hardly bulbous, and not at
all tasty. In this part of the world, garlic chive blossoms
are not nearly as popular for eating as those of regular
chives. But garlic chives are so pretty and long-lasting
that they’re often grown as garden ornamentals or for cut
flowers rather than as a culinary ingredient. Many
beneficial insects also feed on nectar found in the
flowers. Garlic chives bloom all at once and seldom
complain, even if you gather almost every stem to enjoy
indoors.

Sun-loving, extremely cold-hardy (Zone 3)
perennials, chives ask only for regular water and
reasonably fertile soil to be contented garden
residents.

Grow Chives on Your Own

In the garden, let chives help bring out your painterly
side. They’re pretty enough to include among your flowers,
and they may be good companion plants in both the flower
and vegetable gardens, too. According to a 1999 report in
the Journal of Chemical Ecology, interplanting
garlic chives with tomatoes helps suppress bacterial wilt,
a real challenge for tomato growers in the Southeast.

Sun-loving, extremely cold-hardy (Zone 3) perennials,
chives ask only for regular water and reasonably fertile
soil to be contented garden residents. Early spring is the
best season to start a new planting of either regular or
garlic chives. Both are easy to grow from seed, but be sure
it’s fresh because germination rates can fall below 50
percent after only one year. Also, be aware that seedlings
are apt to remain small through their first year, so if you
want good-sized clumps in short order, purchase the plants
or trade with a friend for some pass-alongs; chives
multiply by bunching as well as by seed, so digging and
dividing established clumps every few years is good for the
plants, too.

The grassy texture of chive leaves also makes them a
welcome addition to container plantings of herbs, where
they do exceedingly well. If you live far enough south to
leave a planted container outdoors all winter, try this:
Bring one inside in late winter, while the weather is still
cold and the plants are dormant. Within a few days, a tuft
of green chive shoots will spurt up, their growth triggered
by the warmer temperatures. Chives forced to grow early
indoors often do not bloom as enthusiastically after they
go back outside as those allowed to follow their natural
rhythms, but you need not worry about killing them. Whether
forced indoors or grown outside, clumps will continue to
produce nonstop all summer and into fall. As the growing
season progresses, a mulch of nitrogen-rich grass clippings
will help the plants continue to flourish, especially those
in containers.

In very hot weather, the leaves of regular chives may
wither, but after a short rest, heat-stressed plants that
are given regular water usually rebound and produce a new
crop of tender young leaves in the fall. Garlic chives hold
their strappy green leaves well through summer’s heat,
though the leaves often become tough and fibrous. The
best-quality garlic chive leaves are gathered in late
spring; by the time they bloom in late summer, these plants
are best appreciated as a lovely perennial. Both species
die back to the ground when freezing weather comes but need
no special protection to insure their winter survival.

Cooking With Chives

Snip chives into little pieces using scissors or mince them
on a cutting board with a sharp knife. Many people enjoy
loading up baked potatoes with fixin’s that include mounds
of chive greens. The combination makes a delicious culinary
partnership, but it marks only the beginning of this herb’s
tasty uses. The mild flavor of chives makes them acceptable
to most palates, even raw — a claim that cannot be made
for other onions. Both regular and garlic chives are rich
in vitamins A and C, calcium and phosphorous and, as
members of the Allium family, they may help prevent such
diseases as cancer, and lower blood pressure and control
bleeding, too.

You can add chives to such naturally mild-flavored cooked
dishes as omelets and cream sauces with good effect. For a
beautiful presentation of long, cylindrical vegetables such
as asparagus, carrots or green beans, tie the vegetables
into small bundles using chive leaves as strings. Then,
steam the tied bundles until the vegetables are tender. For
a tasty herbed spread, mix 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh
chives into half a cup of softened butter, reduced-fat
cream cheese or a mixture of both.

To make a delicately flavored and colored vinegar with
regular chive blossoms, begin with 2 cups of mild, white
vinegar such as white rice vinegar, and add 2 cups (packed)
fresh blossoms. Let stand at least a week; then strain,
discarding the faded blooms, and transfer the flavored
vinegar to storage bottles. Add a few fresh blossoms on
their stems for a decorative look.

To preserve your garden chives for winter cooking, chop and
freeze the leaves in ice cube trays. Home-dried chives
usually lack flavor; the commercial, freeze-dried product
is better tasting.


Adapted from Barbara Pleasant’s forthcoming book,
The
Whole Herb, to be published by
Square One Publishers.