Chives, a member of the onion family native to Asia and Europe, have been around for more than 5,000 years. But they were not actively cultivated as food until the Middle Ages. The botanical name, Allium schoenoprasum, derives from the Greek meaning reed-like leek. The English name chive comes from the Latin cepa, meaning onion, which in turn became cive in French.
Prized for their delicate taste, this smallest member of the onion family has many wild cousins growing throughout the Northern hemisphere, including ramps and scallions. Chives grow in clumps like grasses, sending up hollow thin leaves that grow to 12 inches. Unlike regular onions, no large bulb forms underground. The leaves provide the flavor, and savvy cooks treat them as herbs, adding them at the end of cooking to preserve their character and color.
A perennial plant, chives make an easy success story for the home gardener, even those with brown thumbs. They grow in almost any type of soil, thrive in pots or in the ground and survive below-freezing temperatures. If you grow your own, you will be blessed in the spring and summer with lovely lavender flowers shaped like a delicate puffball. These edible flowers make a striking addition for any dish. However, be aware that the flavor of the chive leaves becomes bitter after the plant flowers. To prevent flowering, snip the leaves on a regular basis.
Considered one of the fines herbes in French cuisine, chives pair well with all types of seafood and often come as a garnish on cream soups. They regularly make picnic appearances in recipes for potato and macaroni salads. Chives enliven scrambled eggs and omelets and are a classic garnish for blini. They perk up a salad vinaigrette and decorate a bowl of dip. As a common companion to cream cheese and sour cream, they can elevate a modest baked potato to an elegant meal. To keep a handy source of flavor on hand, mix finely chopped chives into softened butter, then roll it into a log and refrigerate it until it firms up again, cutting chunks as needed to melt over steaks and vegetables.
You can purchase freeze-dried chives in airtight containers, but they do not provide the flavor of freshly snipped leaves. If you can't grow your own, look for fresh chives packaged with the herbs in your grocery store. The leaves should be bright and firm, and the scent should be subtle. They store well loosely wrapped in paper towels in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator. Rinse them just before use.