If ramps can become an overnight produce sensation, why not chives?
That’s a question I’ve been pondering in recent weeks with the arrival of early spring vegetables from the onion family. 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.
The chives most familiar to westerners (and the arguable contender to ramps) are European or common chives, known in botanical circles as Allium schoenoprasum. These chives are widely considered the descendant of a wild plant that grew at high elevations in Europe. When and exactly where the plant came into being is unclear. The late food historian Waverly Root claimed Siberia to be the European chives’ native home, but were those chives more closely related to allium tuberosum, also known as garlic or Chinese chives? A. tuberosum is among 44 edible plants mentioned in The Book of Songs, a collection of Chinese poetry from the Zhou dynasty (1066-226 BCE) said to have been compiled by Confucius around 479 BCE.
As for A. Schoenoprasum, it is said to have grown and been used in ancient Rome but there is no English record of chives until 1375, when Henry Daniel, a Dominican friar, published De Re Herbaria. It would be another 200 years before English botanist John Gerard published The Herball, in which he describes chives’ medicinal properties. Chives would arrive on this side of the Atlantic during the colonial era; Thomas Jefferson grew them in his garden at Monticello in 1813.
- 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.”
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, and does well in hydroponic environments, too. 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 yet caught on 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.
European chives are the first to arrive, by early to mid-March, they’ll sprout up as green grass-like blades. Left uncut, chives will blossom around June or July. Under warm, well-hydrated conditions, chives can last well up to the first frost. They prefer sunny, temperate conditions. Chinese chives are more of a late spring/early summer plant, with blossoms appearing in late summer. They too will last until the first frost.
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. As cookbook author Deborah Madison argues in Vegetable Literacy, “When you consider the alternative of paying several dollars for some sad strands of chives gasping for air in their plastic coffins, you might want to grow some, too.”
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. In recent years, the watchdog group Beyond Pesticides has noted 18 pesticides to which chives have known tolerance, seven of which are toxic to bees and other pollinators.
Meanwhile, garlic chives in Asia have had their share of woes. In 2011, news broke that certain banned pesticides in China were being sprayed on garlic chives and causing people to get sick. In 2012, garlic chives sold in supermarkets in Taiwan were found to have illegal amounts of pesticide residue.
(*Check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below.)
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. Left alone, the blades will produce a flowery pom-pom in either pink or purple. 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 come are white-ish. Typically, they are slightly taller than European chives, and instead of an onion flavor, Chinese chives are distinctly more garlicky.
What to Look for
You’re looking for pert green blades without signs of yellowing, moisture or mildew.
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.
What to Do with It
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Grow your own chives! Even urban dwellers with a sunny windowsill or fire escape can have a container chive garden. When ready to harvest, don’t snip the whole plant; keep a few inches intact, a practice that will repay you with even more chives.
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.” (P.S. A bunch of sliced scallions and 1⁄2 cup sliced fresh ginger are a good Plan B.)
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.
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.
When overrun with backyard chives, you can preserve the harvest by freezing a few different ways: Chop and flash freeze on a baking tray (so they don’t clump); or place a teaspoon of chopped chives into ice cube trays, then fill each with water; or 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.
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, yes indeed. Dress up those devilled eggs, or your next omelet, and don’t forget chive-ing up your favorite potato salad. As soon as I get my hands on a good sized bunch, I’m making this chive pesto.
For Chinese chives, think dumplings and other filled pasta, or as part of a stir-fry, in soups, or grilled with pork barbecue.
Oh! 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!
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.
Chives and Chive Blossom Butter
Adapted from The Mediterranean Herb Cookbook by Georgeanne Brennan
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon minced fresh chive blossoms
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
- Place the butter in a bowl and mash with a spoon until pliable.
- Stir in the rest of the ingredients and mix until well blended.
- Shape into a log and wrap tightly in parchment paper, then in plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can mold into a ramekin and cover with plastic and refrigerate.
Butter logs can be frozen and sliced on an as-needed basis. Refrigerated butter will last about a week.
Use as a finishing touch for asparagus, spinach, peas, potatoes or fish.
Chive-Scented Ricotta for Crostini or Your Favorite Kind of Toast
Adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison
2 cups fresh cow’s or sheep’s milk ricotta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄4 cup chives, very finely chopped (or snipped with kitchen shears)
Salt and pepper to taste
One baguette or your favorite crusty bread, toasted
Handful of chive blossoms, separated
- Place the ricotta, oil and chopped chives in a medium-size bowl and mix until well combined. Taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly.
- Spread a layer atop each toasted slice, and garnish with a sprinkling of chive blossoms.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)