Chives are an important culinary herb belonging to the esteemed Alliaceae family that includes onions, garlic, leek and shallots. There are two main varieties of chives that are of culinary interest, onion chives and garlic chives.
Onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum) grow to a height of 30 cm (12 in) and have delicate cylindrical, deep green leaves that have a passing resemblance to long grass. In summer the plant will bear an abundance of mauve flowers, making onion chives an attractive ornamental plant. Onion chives have a mild, sweet onion flavour that matches a multitude of dishes, just like the onion itself. They are often cut into miniscule pieces that are scattered over a finished dish as a garnish. Many cookbooks recommend that you snip your chives with scissors, so as not to bruise the delicate cell structure. While this method is fine, I have found that if your knife is sharp enough, there is no problem with chopping. A garnish that appeared sometime during the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970's was a duo of whole chives placed in a cross pattern over the finished dish. Please, before you do this, I beseech you to swallow a whole chive, I guarantee that you will choose a different garnish after you have stopped choking.
Garlic chives (A. tuberosum) grow to a slightly greater height, 40 cm (12 in). The leaves of garlic chives are not hollow and cylindrical, like onion chives, but flat, about the same shape as linguine. Garlic chives also have attractive flowers, but in this case they are white and tulip shaped. A bunch of flowering garlic chives is a delightful standout at the green grocers. In line with the name, garlic chives have gentle garlic overtones and are esteemed in Asian cookery, where they are often found in stir fry and noodle dishes.
All chives have an affinity with seafood and egg dishes. Some chives scattered over scrambled eggs are a delight. However, there are few savoury dishes that do not benefit from the addition of chives. When you think of the ubiquity of onion and garlic, then it makes sense that these two fabulous herbs will partner all manner of dishes.
Chives are also an indispensable ingredient in the classic French herb combination, fines herbes. As with all delicate herbs, the subtle taste of chives is easily scared off by heat. When adding this herb to a recipe, make sure that it is at the last moment, so as to capture its fresh vitality.