Real Food Encyclopedia | Chives
If ramps can become an overnight produce sensation, why not chives? Unless you live near a forest where you can forage for ramps, you’ll be paying a pretty penny to enjoy wild onions in an urban setting. But chives? They’re the next best mild onion-y thing — and super easy to grow on your own. On top of that, you can enjoy chives well into the summer, when ramps will be a distant memory.
Fun Facts about Chives:
- The word chive comes from the French word cive and cepa, the Latin word for onion. The Cantonese word for Chinese chives is gao choy.
- In the early 1900s, chive was a slang word that meant “a shout.”
- In “A Treatise on Gardening by a Citizen of Virginia,” colonial American botanist John Randolph compared chives to other alliums and noted that they “do not affect the breath so much as the other sorts.”
What to Look for When Buying Chives
You’re looking for pert green blades without signs of yellowing, moisture or mildew.
From an underground bulb, European chives emerge in clumps of slender grass-like blades that grow between 12 and 18 inches high. The blades are like hollow tubes that come in a shade of grass green. Both the perfume and flavor is distinctly but mildly onion-y.
There are slight differences with Chinese chives. Their blades are flat and wide like linguine, and their powder puff blossoms are white-ish. Typically, they are slightly taller than European chives, and instead of an onion flavor, Chinese chives are distinctly more garlicky.
Sustainability of Chives
Home-grown chives make good economic and environmental sense. Not only are they easy to grow and maintain, they grow like crazy and keep on giving after you harvest. Chive blossoms attract bees and other pollinators and the natural oils in the blades are a natural aphid repellant. Besides, what’s on offer in the supermarket produce section is a rip-off.
If a chive garden is simply out of the question, we recommend sourcing chives as locally as possible, at a farmers’ market or farm stand. Because fresh chives are typically packaged in plastic, they easily spoil and are often rendered un-useable.
Pesticides and Chives
Pesticides can be used on chives. Also, garlic chives in Asia have had their share of woes when it comes to pesticide residues in the past decade. The best bet to avoid pesticides on your chives it to buy it organic or from a farmer you can ask about pesticide use.
In the United States, chives are in season from June through August, depending on the variety and where you are located.
Chives and Geography
The European chive is considered both the smallest and most delicate member of the extensive Allium family, which includes leeks, garlic and shallots. It still grows wild in mountainous regions in temperate climates worldwide, but it’s widely agreed among botanists that the cultivated version closely resembles its wild ancestors. It thrives both in the ground and in containers. Unlike other herbs, chives are not a commodity crop when sold fresh. Commercially grown chives are primarily destined for food products (like sour cream and chive-flavored potato chips) or freeze-dried for the spice aisle. In retail stores, fresh chives are typically chopped and packaged in plastic containers and rarely sold in bunches. Outside the US, food distributors import fresh chives from Mexico.
Although Chinese chives are just as easy to grow for home use, they have not as popular among Western gardeners. They largely remain the domain of Asian communities, both in the marketplace and in backyard gardens. You’d be hard pressed to find Chinese chives in a conventional supermarket in the US, but they are a staple throughout China and Japan.
Storing Fresh Chives
Both European and Chinese chives are hardy and keep for several days in the refrigerator if wrapped loosely in a paper or cloth towel. They do not like moisture, so wait to clean until just before using.
Cooking with Chives
If the flavor differences between our two chives (onion versus garlic) feel subtle, the way they work in the kitchen won’t. Simply put, the European chive works like an herb, and is best used in raw preparations and just before serving. Cooking actually robs those blades of their delicate flavor. But the Chinese chive, which is more fibrous and toothsome, works more like a vegetable. For maximum flavor, Chinese chives should be cooked.
Both types of chives love to cozy up to fat. European chives make natural companions to all kinds of dairy — butter, cream cheese, ricotta and sour cream, to name a few. Instead of an intense slice of red onion on your next bagel and cream cheese, consider a handful of chive ringlets (which will play nicely with smoked fish as well). Chive oil and vinaigrettes are excellent. Dress up those deviled eggs, or your next omelet, and don’t forget chive-ing up your favorite potato salad. Try making this chive pesto. Along with chervil, parsley and tarragon, chives are a classic component of fines herbes, a French herb mixture, finely chopped, and used just before using.
For Chinese chives, think dumplings and other filled pasta, or as part of a stir-fry, in soups, or grilled with pork barbecue. Use garlic chives to season a new wok. As cookbook author and wok authority Grace Young, explains in The Breath of a Wok, those garlic chives with their amazing antibacterial super powers not only help remove the metallic taste of a new wok but figure into a “ritual in hopes that the wok will be everlasting.” A bunch of sliced scallions and 1/2 cup sliced fresh ginger are a good Plan B.
Don’t forget those blossoms, which pack an allium punch. You can throw them into salads, atop crostini (see details below) or hey — how about a batch of chive blossom vinegar. The chive party is just getting started!
For esthetically pleasing results, chop with care. As Deborah Madison writes in “Vegetable Literacy,” “You don’t want to chop chives by running your knife back and forth over the leaves. That bruises and mashes them more than anything. Instead, slice them once through with a sharp knife or snip them with scissors.” That’s hard to do with a dull knife, so make sure to use a honing steel on your knife to ensure quick precise nips on those green blades.
You can preserve the harvest by freezing chives a few different ways:
- Chop and flash freeze on a baking tray so they don’t clump.
- Place a teaspoon of chopped chives into ice cube trays then fill each with water and freeze.
- Bunch whole chive blades and roll into a log, tightly wrap in plastic and bind with a rubber band. Remove from the freezer and snip as needed.
A tablespoon of chopped chives contains just a single calorie. Even in small amounts, it’s a respectable source of protein, calcium, Vitamins A, C and K, and folate. It is supposedly higher in Vitamin A than any other allium. Chives contain allicin, an organosulfur compound (also present in garlic) that has been studied for its potential ability to control cholesterol and blood pressure. They are also rich in quercetin, a disease-fighting, anti-inflammatory antioxidant that may, among other things, help fight plaque buildup in arteries. In Chinese medicine, garlic chives are considered a yang (or warming) food that supports the liver, stomach and kidney, and boasts detoxifying and antibacterial properties.