Chives are so much more than just a garnish!

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Chives in bloom. Image by Hans Linde from PixabayChives in bloom. Image by Hans Linde from PixabayGardeners know how easy chives are to grow in pots or garden beds and love to use them as border plants for their tasty, fresh green leaves, and delightful profusion of violet flowers in summer. This herbs high concentration of sulphur compounds and other essential oils are also partly responsible for its healing properties. Read more below on how to grow and use chives at home.

This is an excerpt from my e-book “Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa”.  Herbs are little miracles of nature which will not only spice up your life, but also reward you with their beauty and wonderful healing properties. Click here to read more. 

If you mention chives to people, the first thought that comes to mind will most likely be a baked potato covered with a dollop of sour cream and topped with a sprinkling of the little green ‘sticks’. However, this thin, graceful herb has so much more to offer, and is infinitely useful in the kitchen when you want to add a flavour of onion without it being overpowering. And because they're mild, you can use chives generously and enjoy the health benefits of their bright green blades. A cousin of scallions, onions and leeks, chives are the oldest species of edible onion known to mankind, and from bulb to flower, the entire plant is edible.

Gardeners know how easily chives are to grow in pots or garden beds all year round, and love to use them as border plants for their fresh green leaves and delightful profusion of violet flowers in summer - just a handful of chive flowers placed in a tall glass of water makes an unexpected but pretty arrangement, and dried, they will add charm to a bouquet too.

Chives now grow wild across most of the Northern Hemisphere, as well as in many other regions around the world, even Australia.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) is the most common variety, growing about 30cm tall with beautiful purple flowers.

Garlic Chives, Chinese Chives (Allium tuberosum) have a sweet garlic flavour and white flowers. It is taller than other varieties growing about 40cm.

Pink Chives (Allium schoenoprasum roseum) is a shorter plant; growing about 20 cm tall, with beautiful pale pink flowers.

Chives are the smallest species of the onion family and grow wild in both the New World (the Americas) and the Old World (Europe, Africa and Asia), making it difficult to determine its exact origins. However, historians have dated chives to 3000BC, with its origins reported as being either in Siberia, China or Greece. The first documented evidence was found in China, dated 3000 years ago, and Marco Polo is credited with bringing chives to Europe from China. The Romans are also attributed with bringing chives over to Europe, and they believed chives could relieve the pain from sunburn or a sore throat, increase blood pressure and act as a diuretic – claims not validated today. The Siberians treasured chives, believing that they were the greatest aphrodisiac known to man, and for this reason it is said that they were given to Alexander the Great when he came to Siberia to marry Princess Roxiana.

Botanical records suggest that chives became really popular around the 1500’s as a food item, at which time they also started appearing as a ‘must have’ in the herb gardens of Asia and Europe. Gardeners cultivated chives as ornamental plants around their fences, and also used it for deterring insects. At that time it was also thought that hanging bunches of chives around the house would ward off disease and evil.

In the late 19th century chives were used extensively in the West, and in his famous 1806 book “Attempt at a Flora” (Försök til en flora), Retzius speaks in great detail about using chives in the preparation of pancakes, fish, sandwiches and soups. He also describes how farmers would plant chives between the rocks making up the borders of their flowerbeds, to keep the plants free from pests like Japanese beetles. Chives were also used in the preparation of treasured drinks such as “Chives Vinegar”, which is as much in demand today, as it was a century ago.

Health Benefits:

Chives are part of the onion and garlic family and like them, this herbs tangy aromatic taste comes from its high concentration of sulphur compounds and other essential oils, which are also partly responsible for its healing properties. Chives have a reputation for being a good blood tonic and to have a beneficial effect on the circulatory system.  They are also mild enough to use as a convalescent herb for children.

They are valued for their many essential minerals, including cardiac-friendly potassium, bone-strengthening calcium and blood-building iron; and unlike most other members of the onion family, chives are high in folic acid (a B vitamin), vitamin A and vitamin C. In fact, just 3 ½ ounces of chives supplies enough vitamin C to meet your daily requirement of 60mg.

Scientific research shows that chives improve digestion by helping to break down fat, plus they have a mild diuretic effect, as well as some antibacterial properties.

Chives wrapped in bacon. Image by tarychen from PixabayChives wrapped in bacon. Image by tarychen from PixabayIn the Kitchen:

Chives are so much more than just a garnish and can be used in so many simple yet delicious ways. Be inspired by their delicate flavour and include them in some of your favourite dishes - they will brighten up almost anything!

Sometimes the simplest dishes can be the most satisfying, and in the mountainous climate of the Alps, chives are one of the few herbs that can be grown locally, making them popular in modest meals like black rye bread with Tyrolean alpine butter, topped with chopped chives – simply delicious!  No Swedish midsummer, solstice celebration is complete without pickled herring, called “sill,” which is served with boiled new potatoes and fresh dill. “Gräddfil sauce” with freshly chopped chives is served with this dish, rounding it off beautifully. Gräddfil is a dairy product often used in Swedish cooking. It is a soured cream that has a similar taste to yoghurt, but is not as sour.

In Poland and Germany, chives are served with quark cheese, a mild, fresh and creamy cheese of European origin, without the sour taste of yogurt. Chives are also an important herb in the French kitchen and one of the "fines herbes" of French cuisine, which also include tarragon, chervil or parsley. Italian cooks use chives in salads and dressings, pasta dishes, casseroles, soups and stews. Chives are also an ingredient in “tvorog”, a type of soft cheese enjoyed in Russia and Poland.

For a more oriental flavour, try a "Chinese chive and egg rice bowl" - a simple rice bowl recipe with just Chinese chives cooked in egg, and lots of delicious sauce! If your plants are in bloom, why not make a "Chinese flowering-chive stir-fry" - a simple side dish with chive flowers as the star ingredient, accompanied by soy sauce, chicken broth and peanut oil.

In Quebec Canada, paprika, chive and caper butter is paired with grilled calf’s liver. South Africans love their smoked snoek, and there is a wonderful recipe online by Justine Drake Recipes called “smoked snoek and chives”. This mouth-watering baked recipe includes flaked snoek, leeks and chopped chives, cream and eggs, and can be whipped up in only 15 minutes!

To make the most of their delicate onion flavour, and to retain their luscious green colour, chives are best used fresh. If you must cook them, add them last or just before serving.

Because of their mild onion flavour, chives make a wonderful addition to summer salads, dips, dressings, soups, and sauces. Fresh chives also add flavour to fish and baked potatoes, potato salads, and in fact, most any fresh vegetable salad. The fully opened flowers are also used to decorate salads, adding colour and texture.

It is best to use scissors instead of pruning shears or a knife to cut these plants, and scissors are especially useful when cutting your chives to prepare for your favourite dishes. Sealed bunches of chives will keep in the fridge for up to seven days. They can also be sealed fresh and un-chopped in plastic bags and frozen, or chopped and frozen in ice cube trays for later use. Once frozen, they will be a bit watery once defrosted and not good for fresh salads, but are perfectly fine to use in cooked dishes.

Another way to preserve them is to make delicious chive salt or flavoured oil.  For chive flavoured oil the flowers are added to oil and allowed to steep for about a week before straining.  The oil will turn lilac and take on the fragrance of the flowers.  For chive salt add fresh chive leaves to some salt and bake in a very low oven until the leaves are dry. Cool and mix, storing in an airtight jar.

Chive flowers in a bouquet. R Image by RitaE from pixabayChive flowers in a bouquet. R Image by RitaE from pixabayIn the Garden:

A perennial plant, chives are perfect for the home gardener, even those with brown thumbs! They make a wonderful addition to the flower border if they are allowed to flower in summer; and there are several varieties with beautiful mauve, pink or white flowers. Chives also grow easily in pots on a sunny windowsill, as long as they are watered regularly, and in very hot regions, are shaded from the intense midday sun.

Chives are delightful in small bouquets of flowers and last long in the vase.

Chives make an excellent natural spray for red spider. Infuse two large handfuls of chopped chives in 2 litres of boiling hot water and leave to steep overnight. Strain well and add a few drops of dishwashing liquid before straining and spraying thoroughly underneath the leaves. Red spiders are very difficult to control, so start spraying at the first sign of infestation, and every 2 days thereafter until their breeding cycle has been broken.

Cultivation:

Chives are very easy to grow in summer from seed sown directly into garden beds or trays. They need a soil temperature of 19°C or more to germinate. Cover the seeds lightly with soil and water gently. Germination will take place in 2 to 3 weeks. Once the little seedlings are strong enough, thin the clumps out, allowing about 15 to 20cm between them. Water regularly but do not overwater, allow the soil to go almost dry between watering, then soak thoroughly again.

Chives are evergreen in warm climates and although they are hardy to frost, in cold regions they will die back to their underground bulbs, with new leaves appearing again in early spring. They will grow in sun or semi-shade; and for best results, need to be planted in deep, rich, moist soil. The plants spread fairly vigorously and will need to be lifted and divided in spring; replant the tiny bulbs in clusters of about 8 or 10.

Harvest the leaves as required, but remember that chives are bulbs and therefore require a certain amount of greenery in order to rejuvenate the bulb for next year's crop. For culinary purposes it is best to cut out the flowering stems to encourage fresh leaf growth and to maintain their flavour. The entire plant can be cut down completely, leaving about 5cm for regrowth, but because chives can only withstand this level of harvesting up to 4 times a year, it is advisable to grow several plants for a continuous supply.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Due to their sulphur compounds, chives are repulsive to insects in general, and if grown correctly are generally free of pests and diseases, but may occasionally be attacked by aphids and thrips.

Caution:

No significant side effects or adverse reactions are reported, although consuming very large quantities may upset the stomach.

I hope you enjoyed this is an excerpt from my e-book “Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa”.  These little miracles of nature will not only spice up your life, but also reward you with their beauty and wonderful healing properties. Click here to read more.