Thursday, August 17, 2006

Chive Flavor, Chive Flare

This old fashioned garden and kitchen standby has found new life in today’s up scale cuisines. You know the food I am talking about. When you look at the photos in elegant magazines, or when it is presented to you in fancy restaurants you are confronted with something that looks more like art then something to eat. All those tiny colorful leaves, strange shaped and hued tomatoes, spikes, weaves, bundles and ties. And the price tag is likely to give you indigestion.

Chives are much esteemed in the new cuisine. Mature chive plants provide tasty long flexible narrow leaves. When slightly wilted they make perfect edible ties for lettuce or cabbage rolls and for weaving an edible mat or basket. When kept cool and crisp, they can add spiky sculptural appeal to savory dishes that include a thick sauce or a dab of sour cream to hold them in place. (And a dab is probably all you will get. This up scale cuisine tends to be heavy on presentation and low on calories.)

If this all sounds like food from another planet, be sure to check out Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Saveur magazines next time you are near a well stocked magazine rack. It is a rare day that you can thumb through an issue of any gourmet cooking magazine with out finding a recipe that showcases chive flare or flavor.

And chives are so easy to grow! While they are happiest in the ground, growing in at least part sun, they can be coaxed to make their homes in containers. They will grow in sunny windows, on porches, in full sun or part shade, and they can take some drought stress once established.

There are a number of varieties of chives available, from very fine leaved to the larger broader varieties. You can also find garlic chives in two different sizes, as well as a close chive relative called Chinese Leek Flower that I am dying to try. (It has small edible flower buds long narrow leaves.) Chives can be started any time of year, from seed or from young plants often available at nurseries. Plants started or purchased during the winter will need to be kept in a sunny window until spring. (Chives grown outside will normally go dormant in the winter, except in the very mildest of climates.)

Chives grown from seed are best started in a pot or other well drained container. The tiny seedlings resemble thin blades of grass and are easy to lose track of in the garden. Chives grow very slowly from seed. It may be a year or more before they have grown enough to withstand cutting for kitchen use. If you are impatient seek out plants at local nurseries. If you can find them in gallon sized containers, you can begin cutting your chives almost immediately.

Any ordinary garden soil will suit chives just fine. If you like the sharp tang of a spicy onion, hold back on the soil amendments, fertilizer, and be careful not to over water. For the strongest flavor chives need a lean soil and a bit of drought stress. Make sure the plants are well established before you experiment with holding back on the water. And keep a good eye on them, so they don’t actually wilt. If on the other hand you would prefer mild tasting extra large chives, grow them in rich well amended soil (add plenty of organic matter) and keep the soil evenly moist (but not wet).

Established chive plants are as ornamental as they are tasty. In early to mid spring they are festooned with cheerfully purple flowers that can be used in salads or even bouquets – if you don’t mind the scent of onions. The garlic flavored chives are not quite as ornamental, but their white flowers, which appear in mid to late summer, can be snipped and added to salad or floated on the top of hot or cold soups. Once they are done flowering you can collect the mature seed heads for dry arrangements, or to start new plants to share with your friends. Chive plants make a tidy spiky statement in the garden. It doesn’t hurt to have a few patches of chives. That way if you enjoy the flavor you can cut from those tucked into an herb bed or the vegetable garden while others are left to beautify the flower border.

In the kitchen, I must admit, I am a bit old fashioned when it comes to using chives. I like to dice them up with a sharp knife, much like the dehydrated chives you buy off the spice rack. However, fresh from the garden they are really far superior. Fresh chives are great in anything that cooks fairly quickly, such as egg dishes, white fish, canned or frozen veggies, stews, or soups. If you like the taste of onions and garlic you will also enjoy them raw - tossed into green salads, mixed up with tuna or salmon for sandwiches, as a garnish for deviled eggs, potatoe and macaroni salad, and casseroles. As far as I am concerned, chives are great in just about any savory dish. When you want a little flavor, a little flare - not much beats garden fresh chives.

If you can’t find the chives your heart most desires at your local nursery, check out: They have the Chinese Leek Flowers, as well as two other varieties of garlic of Chinese chives. They are primarily an Internet business. (I have purchased lots of seed from them with no problem.) However you can also contact them at: Evergreen Y.H. Enterprises, P.O. Box 17538, Anaheim, CA 92817 They have chives in three different sizes, as well as two different types of garlic chives. You can also call to request a catalog (877) 564-6697. You will be glad you did.

Stay tuned, next time we will be taking a look at Crimson Clovers’ lovely flowers - made famous by that old tune . . . Until then, you can probably find me out in the garden, Digging the Dirt.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, July 25, 2006. Posted here with permission.

Added a photo on 11.13.16.  Text and photo copyright 2016, Harvest McCampbell. Please feel free to share using the buttons below.  All other rights reserved. 

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Sweet Cecily will be covered before you know it, as well as lots of veggies, flowers and other good stuff for the garden.