Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chives - Herb of the Week

twisted stems of unicorn chives
Chives are the smallest species of the edible onions. A perennial plant, they are native to Europe, Asia and North America. Allium schoenoprasum is the only species of Allium native to both the New and the Old World.  Chives are the smallest of the onion family and there are a few types to choose from. I found a plant called Unicorn Chives this Spring at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show and just loved the look of the twisted leaves. (Check out Ted’s Green House for these.)  There are also Garlic Chives and other varieties, but for today we are going to discuss the standard oniony culinary chives.

Allium schoenoprasum or Chives is today’s Herb of the Week.
(I seem to have lost the ability to use a calendar, so I am sorry that the herb of the week has not been on Wednesday for a bit, we have corrected the problem!)

Its English name, chive, derives from the French word cive, from cepa, the Latin word for onion. The plant belongs to the same family as onions, leeks, and garlic. Although they are native to Asia and Eastern Europe, by the sixteenth century chives were common plants in herb gardens throughout Europe. Chives are hardy, draught tolerant, perennials, eight to twenty inches tall, that grow in clumps from underground bulbs. The leaves are round and hollow, similar to onions, but smaller in diameter. In early spring, chives produce large round flower heads consisting of purple to pink flowers.

Chives have been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages, although their usage dates back to 5000 years ago. They were sometimes referred to as "rush leeks" (from the Greek schoinos meaning rush and prason meaning leek). The Romans believed chives could relieve the pain from sunburn or a sore throat. They believed that eating chives could increase blood pressure and act as a diuretic.  Romanian Gypsies have used chives in fortune telling. It was believed that bunches of dried chives hung around a house would ward off disease and evil.

In his 1806 book Attempt at a Flora (Försök til en flora), Retzius describes how chives are used with pancakes, soups, fish and sandwiches Retzius also describes how farmers would plant chives between the rocks making up the borders of their flowerbeds, to keep the plants free from pests (such as Japanese beetles). The growing plant repels unwanted insect life, and the juice of the leaves can be used for the same purpose, as well as fighting fungal infections, mildew and scab. Chives have insect-repelling properties that can be used in gardens to control pests.

Chives are one of the "finesherbes" of French cuisine, which also include tarragon, chervil and parsley.  Its flowers are attractive to bees, which are important for gardens with an abundance of plants in need of pollination.  All around an easy plant to grow with a wonderful variety of uses.
You can eat every part of the chive plant. The edible flowers add color to the salad bowl or other garnish, the grass-like leaves can be cut up and added to cooked potatoes, salads, sauces and even sandwiches, and the bulb can be used as a mild onion.

Although the flower stalk is edible, once the flower has been produced, there is very little taste or nutrients left in the stalk. Discard the flower stalks, and use the flowers to make a perfect oniony vinegar.

To Grow
Chives are hardy perennial plants that thrive in well drained soil, rich in organic matter, with a pH of 6-7 and full sun.

Chives are also easily propagated by division and can be easily dug up and divided when they get too large.  Plus, the attractive purple flowers scatter their seeds, so you likely see numerous chive seedlings each spring.  Chive seed germinates easily, but slowly and need warmed soil about 70 degrees F to germinate, so you need to start them indoors early if you want to harvest them during the first season.

Sow seed about 1/2 inch deep in flats containing a peat-based soilless mix. Maintain constant moisture and a soil temperature of 60 to 70 F. In four to six weeks, the young plants can be planted outdoors, preferably after all danger of frost is past. Chives can also be direct seeded outside when the soil is warm, but then few if any leaves should be harvested that first year. Plant out in well dug soil, preferably with some organic compost mixed in. You won't need to feed chives once they're in the ground, unless your ground is particularly poor, in which case you should give the chive plants a monthly feed.

Chives may be propagated by simply dividing large clumps into smaller clumps of about 5 bulbs each at any time during the growing season. All plantings should be divided every two to three years to prevent over-crowding. Space plants 4 to 15 inches apart in rows 20 or more inches apart, depending on the width of the cultivator that will be used. Chives are bothered by few disease or insect pests.

Chives grow best in full sun in a fairly rich, moist soil, which is high in organic matter.  Chives will, however, tolerate partial shade and most soil types. Chives should be fertilized several times during the growing season with a balanced commercial fertilizer or bone meal and manure. Chives should be kept well watered and weeded. Chives like sun but do like a little shade during long hot summers. They are fairly good at tolerating drought conditions, but are happiest in moist well-drained soil.

In cold regions, chives die back to the underground bulbs in winter, with the new leaves appearing in early spring.

Growing chives in containers is also possible! Keep a pot in the kitchen. Remember to water and the plant will see you right through the season. When the flowers start to die back, cut the plant down to about 2-3 inches (5-8cms) high and the chives will grow again.

After three or four years, the chive plant should be divided. Dig up carefully, then gently, but firmly, separate the clumps of bulbs and re-plant.  You get too much dying undergrowth if you let it get too large.
During the winter months your chive plant may die back completely. Don't worry, it'll come back in the spring.  I had one indoors in a pot and it died back so I put the pot outside, thinking we had lost it.  Just this week when I was moving plants back outside here was the pot with a bunch of new growth.
Harvesting & Preserving

Leaves can be harvested after established plants are 6 inches tall. To harvest, simply cut the leaves 2 inches above the ground. Usually, in home gardens or small herb operations, all the leaves of a clump of plants are not cut off at one time. This allows that same clump of plants to be cut over and over again throughout the growing season. All plants should be cut regularly to encourage new bulblets to develop, to prevent leaves from becoming tough.

You can begin harvesting about six weeks after planting or as soon as established plants resume growth in the spring. As you need leaves, cut the outer ones right back to the base. Use them fresh or frozen; they do not retain their flavor well when dried. 

Cut chives as you need them. Use scissors and leave 2-3 inches (5-8cms) of leaf on the plant. When the flowers start to dry and die back, you can cut down the whole plant ( to 2-3 inches (5-8cms) high ) and the chives will grow again.  You can also do this when the plant starts to look old and you will get young tender new shoots.

Drying:  I had always been told you could not dry chives so until recently I never tried.  But last fall an on-line herb friend said if you cut the stems and place them in a paper bag and put that in your refrigerator you will get perfectly dried herbs.  I tried it and lo and behold I had great dried chives.  Much better than the freeze dried herbs I have been using all these years.  Once the chives are dry place them in jars out of direct light. 

Freezing: My favorite way to preserve chives for my personal use is to freeze them.  Freeze chopped leaves quickly in an ice cube tray with a premeasured serving covered with water.  Place the frozen cubes in sealable freezer bags and label with the item and measurements.  Then remove the number of cubes you need for any dish.

To Use
Chives are usually used fresh and are a common addition to baked potatoes, cream soups, and egg dishes. There is some evidence that chives can improve digestion and reduce high blood pressure. The oil has antibacterial properties. 

Use the flowers in the kitchen or leave to bloom on the plant. The purple flowers look spectacular on a well-established plant.  Chive flowers or leaves can be added to just about any meal you would normally add onions to, and they're very good for you!

Chives are high in vitamin C and Vitamin A and have similar properties to all the onion family. Many people believe this family of plants aids digestion and helps prevents colds and flu. They certainly make a tasty medicine! Chive are also a good natural source for calcium and iron.

The medicinal properties of chives are similar to those of garlic, but weaker; the faint effects in comparison with garlic are probably the main reason for their limited use as a medicinal herb. Containing numerous sulfide compounds, chives are reported to have a beneficial effect on the circulatory system. They also have mild stimulant and diuretic and antiseptic properties. As chives are usually served in small amounts and never as the main dish, negative effects are rarely encountered, although just like all onions digestive problems may occur following over-consumption.

Chive Blossom Vinegar
Cut and wash chive flowers once they have fully opened.  You can cut flowers and keep in a zip lock bag with a damp paper towel until you have enough to make a batch of vinegar.

Once herbs have dried from washing, place them in a glass jar and bruise them with the handle of a wooden spoon.  Cover them with vinegar of your choice that you have warmed in the microwave on high for about 2 minutes.  Seal the jar with a non-reactive (plastic) lid and let sit for at least two weeks shaking daily. Strain and rebottle.  The vinegar is ready once it takes on a light pick color from the chive flowers.  You can use it to make dressings, marinades and sauces. 

Chive Dip
This dip is a wonderful accompaniment to fresh raw vegetables such as carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower and radishes.

1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup fresh chives, snipped with scissors
1 tablespoon fresh sage, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt or garlic salt to taste (optional)

In a medium sized mixing bowl mix add all ingredients and mix well. Let chill for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator before using to allow all the flavors to meld together.

Not-Your-Mama’s Mashed Sour Cream and Chive Potatoes
Serves up to 12
Turnips and herbed cheese add an extra layer of flavor to these sour cream and chive mashers.

4 pounds starchy potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 pound turnips or celery root or parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
1 1/3 cups cream cheese or goat cheese (even better is you mix some Backyard Patch Boursin Blend into the cheese)
1 cup sour cream
Milk, for mashing
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup chives, finely chopped

Boil the potatoes and turnips until tender. Drain and place back into the hot pot. Add the cheese and sour cream to the pot and mash, adding just enough milk to loosen to your preference. Add salt, pepper and chives and taste to adjust the seasonings.

Green Goddess Dressing
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/3 cup finely minced parsley
3 tablespoons finely minced chives or green onions
2 tablespoons anchovy paste or finely minced anchovies
3 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk to blend. Refrigerate so it will thicken and the flavors will blend. For a more creamy dressing, put everything into a blender and blend until smooth. Makes about 2 cups.

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