What's in Season: Chives
Green Fresh Onion Flavor
As spring and summer arrive, I get my annual case of kitchen envy. That's because I wish I had a garden.
I know that some of you live in brownstones and might have access to a back yard. Or maybe you have a rooftop terrace. Lucky you. If you live outside the city and have a half acre, I will take no offense if you're smug about it. I'd be, too. I don't want to be a rival to my Greenmarket but I do wish I could grow a few things. Some daffodils to announce spring. A row of overgrown stakes of summer tomatoes. And fresh herbs.
Last summer I spent a weekend cooking with friends who have a house. For every recipe that called for herbs, I commandeered the job of taking a large bowl and kitchen shears out to the back yard where big bushes of thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil and curly-leafed parsley rimmed the yard.
Prettiest among them were the chives. I loved their dark, spikey straws and thumbprint-sized pale purple flowers. While the bugs and the wild rabbits seemed to prefer the basil plants best of all, the spicy chives were always left alone. They probably had a bit too much onion flavor for northern New Jersey's wildlife.
Chives aren't like other herbs in that they're not used in the cooking but instead on top of it. But chives' appetizing deep green color and fragrant onion flavor make them a way to easily add appeal to otherwise pale or subtle food. People who are trying to restrict their salt intake but want to have more flavor can use chives as a seasoning, plus chives have lots of vitamins A and C, potassium and calcium, although we eat so little of them that their nutritional impact is negligible.
The smallest species of the onion family, chives are native to Europe, Asia and North America and are a perennial plant that grow out of a bulb. But unlike onions, their flavor is not in the bulb; instead it's in the long, thin straw-like hollow leaves. Chives' mild taste means you can add onion's flavor to a dish without any of its bite. The little purple flowers are also edible and some chefs and cooks use them as a garnish.
When a French recipe calls for the aromatic mix called "fines herbes," it's chives combined with equal parts of tarragon, chervil and parsley. But usually we use chives on their own, as when they're sprinkled on top of a bowl of Vichyssoise. See our recipe for this chilled leek and potato soup for which chives are an essential flavor. But when used generously or converted into a green Chive Oil (see our recipe), chives can become a way to add appeal and taste, especially to the simple cooking that so many of us do most of the time.
Cooking With Chives
- Chives are sold dried and frozen, but instead buy them fresh because they're in our markets year-round, usually alongside other fresh herbs in the produce section of our markets. During the summer our Greenmarkets will also have them, sometimes with their little flowers. I don't wash mine but use them just as they are, snipping with scissors just before I add to a recipe or finished dish. To get the best fresh, full effect of their flavor, add chives at the end of cooking because if you put them into a dish too soon, their taste (and color) will fade.
- Chive oil is very handy stuff. It's a snap to make and it keeps in the refrigerator for a week or so at a time. Add a squiggle of green chive oil around a simple piece of poached sea bass and a dinner that's taken only 15 minutes to cook will go from simple to fancy. Likewise for a side of ordinary pan grilled or steamed vegetables. Made with olive oil, chive oil is tangy and complex and a little goes a long way.
- Snipped raw on cooked food, chives can add taste and texture, as when added to an egg white omelet or rained over steamed or roasted root vegetables and potatoes. One of my all time favorite dishes is beets -- served warm or cold, whether roasted, boiled, or reheated pre-cooked ones that came sealed in a vacuum bag -- covered in a shower of fresh chives and accented with a crumble of goat cheese. A bowl of Yukon Gold potatoes, tossed with either French unsalted butter or a little really good olive oil, with a pinch of sea salt and a scattering of little bits of fresh chives can become a luxurious side to any meal.
- Chives make a pretty, edible garnish. You can gather up little bundles and tie them together with a single chive, adding this alongside a platter full of steamed vegetables and a little dish of garlic aioli. When serving, untie the little bundle and let the chive straws spill into the vegetables as you take them from the platter, making a plain dish suddenly seem elegant and good enough for company.
When we're in our city kitchens and challenged by the every day task of making interesting, or at least appealing meals, sometimes something as simple as a snip of chives can a big difference. We might not all have gardens, but if a city cook can still have a steady supply of fresh herbs, it's some compensation for not having that half acre.