- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Garlic is essential for the kitchen, beloved of cooks and gardeners alike, but you don’t have to grow garlic to reap its taste fresh from your garden.

An easy-to-cultivate plant - Chinese chive - resembles other members of the onion family but offers that mild garlic flavor and doesn’t produce a bulb.

Chinese chive (Allium tuberosum) has many common names, including garlic chive, Chinese leek and, in Japan, nira. It has been used for centuries in Asian cooking but can add something special to Western dishes, too.

It’s flat-leafed and has a beautiful white flower that comes up about a month after the first tender green shoots. One word of warning: Deadhead (that is, remove) those flowers or you’ll have more Chinese chives than you know can ever use. They spread prodigiously from seed.

The plants taste best when harvested before flowering, but the flowers, too, are edible and offer a different texture than the flat, deep green leaves.

Growing Chinese chive is simple, as it’s a reliable hardy perennial in Planting Zones 4 through 8 - most of the mainland United States except the Florida peninsula and parts of Louisiana, Texas, western Arizona and California and parts of some states along the Canadian border. To grow it, look for potted plants at a good nursery or start from seed indoors or by sowing in the garden.

Potted plants should be planted in full sun in soil with good fertility and drainage. Amend the planting hole with organic matter such as compost or well-aged animal manure. Whenever transplanting any plant from container to the garden, have the planting area prepared for the move. Gardeners should minimize the time the roots are exposed to air.

Starting from seeds inside is pretty easy, too. Start with a flat filled with moist seed-starting mix and sprinkle the seeds on top, then cover them with a little more mix. Tamp down the dirt with a small, flat object to assure good contact between soil and seed.

Cover the flat with plastic and keep in a well-lit, warm spot. Then remove the plastic when the seeds sprout. The plants can grow outside in the flat as long as temperatures are in the 40s or higher. Keep them watered but not overly so, and they should be ready for the garden in about four weeks or so.

Direct sowing is even easier. Cultivate a spot in the garden and sprinkle the seeds down. Cover them with a thin layer of soil, water and wait for the seeds to sprout. Make sure the soil stays moist until germination.

The plant is also happy in containers. I combine Chinese chives with other herbs in a large pot and grow them close to the kitchen so I can pick what I need for meals.

A good source for seeds is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com; 417/924-8917). It offers a mix of seeds, including different varieties of Chinese chives.

Chinese chives can be harvested as soon as they are just a few inches high. Snip off what you need, and the plants will continue to grow through the season, eventually flowering.

The plants are a delicacy when they are blanched during the growing season. (Blanching, in horticulture, is the process of excluding light from the plants.) This causes the leaves to remain yellow and changes the flavor of the plant, making it taste like a mild onion.

Blanching also affects texture; yellow chives are more tender than those allowed to turn green. To blanch chives, wait until plants break through the soil, then cover them with a clay pot or tent them with a dark cloth. After several days, check the new growth. Harvest yellow plants when they have grown 8 to 10 inches tall.

Chinese chives are high in carotene and vitamins B and C, and they should be used in the kitchen soon after harvesting. They can be used like the round-leaf chives familiar to most cooks, but the garlicky flavor transcends to many other dishes, too. They make great additions to stews and soups and are wonderful with eggs. I love them raw in salads or just to nibble on in the garden.

When using them in recipes, add them last, as their flavor can fade quickly under heat.

Chinese chives are easy to grow and flavorful, and they come back year after year. They offer texture and flavor that just can’t be found in any other plant in the garden.

Easy deep-fried Chinese chives is a wonderful side dish that goes with fish, meat or noodles. Chinese chives and angel-hair pasta is one of my favorite uses for Chinese chives. The fresh greens offer a mild garlic flavor to the dish that mixes with the garlic cloves.

Easy deep-fried Chinese chives

3 cups of chives

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons chicken stock

1 teaspoon sugar

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 teaspoons cornstarch

8 teaspoons water

Slice the chives into 3-inch pieces. I like to cut them on the diagonal; for me it looks better.

Mix the soy sauce, chicken stock and sugar together. Add the oil to a wok and turn the heat to high.

When the oil is hot, add the chives. Stir-fry the chives for about 1 minute, until they change to a brighter green color. Move the chives to the sides of the wok.

Add the sauce in the middle. Then mix the cornstarch and the water; add the mix to the sauce and stir until thick, about another minute.

Mix everything together until the sauce starts to boil - but don’t overcook - maybe about one more minute. Makes 4 servings.

Chinese chives and angel-hair pasta

1 pound angel-hair pasta

6 teaspoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 cups Chinese chives, chopped into 3-inch pieces

2 cups mung bean sprouts

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons rice wine

Salt and pepper to taste

Break the pasta in half and cook in boiling water until al dente.

Drain the noodles and set aside

Heat the oil in a wok at high heat and add the garlic, letting it cook for just one minute; add the chives and cook for another 30 seconds.

Reduce heat to medium low and add the sprouts, soy sauce and rice wine.

Toss together with the pasta and add the salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 4 servings.

Doug Oster is co-author of “Grow Organic” (St. Lynn’s Press).

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