Garden View: Chive Talk
Liza Gyllenhaal is the author of the novels “Local Knowledge,” “So Near,” and the forthcoming “A Place for Us,” all set in the Rural Intelligence region. She and her husband divide their time between Manhattan and West Stockbridge, MA where she writes — and putters around in her garden. We’re pleased to share her periodic musings on gardening and other topics with RI readers.
A part of me is still bracing for the winter that never was. Can it really be over? It’s usually not until late April that one of the first signs of life declare themselves in our small, fenced-in vegetable garden: shiny shoots — fine as cat whiskers — sprouting up through the dried, snow-flattened mound of last year’s chive patch. This year, however, the chives began to push up through the earth in mid-March. Since then, they’ve thickened, lengthened, and spread. Like telemarketers, they’re invasive and indefatigable. They jump across the raised beds to wriggle in among the newly planted peas or slide under the bricks in the narrow garden pathways.
Now, a full month ahead of schedule, this smallest member of the onion family is in flower — just as their grown-up relations, the ornamental Globemaster Alliums, can be seen nodding their three-inch purple scepters above the bearded irises and hosta in the border garden that runs along the western side of our cottage. Chives are not only decorative — ours form a well-proportioned bouquet of tightly packed lavender flower-heads about the size of jaw-breakers — but their smell also helps ward off pests and insects such as aphids, Japanese beetles, and spider mites. Planted near roses, they can reduce the risk of “black spot.” As companions to carrots and tomatoes, they actually enrich the flavor of the vegetables.
Flowering chives reek of new life. Less is more with chives, but a chiffonade of these freshly snipped herbs on a bed of salad greens adds a burst of energy and flavor that excites the palate and lifts the spirit. The beautiful lavender chive flowers are edible, too, adding a spicy tang when the florets are separated and sprinkled over grilled fish and chicken.
Almost all of the things I like to cook with chives are simple, fast, and tasty. Perhaps my favorite, adapted from the Union Square Cookbook, is skinless, boneless chicken breasts, stuffed with chèvre cheese, chives, and any other herbs you might have on hand. Slit a pocket lengthwise in the breast and spoon in (I actually do this with my fingers) chèvre (if you’re feeling flush, spring for the heavenly Monterey Chèvre from Rawson Brook Farm) softened with some olive oil, and mixed with a handful of chives and herbs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then saute until nicely browned in olive oil or butter. I usually put the stuffed breasts in the oven for 10 minutes or so at 375 degrees to make sure they’re cooked through and to let the chèvre/chive mixture infuse the breasts and melt a bit into the pan. Before serving, spoon the melted chèvre/chive sauce over the chicken. This dish is great with fresh asparagus and couscous.
I’m always looking for good salmon recipes, and I recently came across one that’s made more so by the addition of chives. Simply coat the salmon fillets with crème fraiche (I’ve also used the Fage brand of Greek Yoghurt), sprinkle with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs (I used all chives), and roast in the oven at 425 degrees for 12- 15 minutes.
One last suggestion: snip chives over fresh cherry tomatoes, halved, marinated in a light vinaigrette, and serve this on a bed of arugula alongside corn fritters. It’s one of the most delicious lunches you’ll have this summer. I adapted this from a recipe that ran in the late, dearly beloved Gourmet magazine, substituting chives for scallions, and I didn’t saute the tomatoes as suggested— because what can be better than raw cherry tomatoes right off the vine? But I’ll leave that question for another day.
End of May in the garden is one of the busiest times of the year. Among the many chores that I should be getting to right now:
• Staking the peonies and supporting the bearded irises.
• Cleaning out the last of the debris and re-edging the garden borders.
• Pulling out the faded tulips (and saving the strongest corms for replanting in the fall) and planting dahlias in the holes.
• Enriching the soil where needed with compost and fertilizer — and digging green sand into the rose bed.
• Planting sunflower seeds along the split rail fence of the vegetable garden and, in the beds themselves, tri-color green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, and parsley
• And (yes, already!) rooting out the wild violets and bishops weed that have slipped like uninvited guests into the garden party and are attempting to mingle with the A-list crowd. —Liza Gyllenhaal