There had been flirtation. Rounds of spiky conversation. But the direction of this dalliance was still hovering in the air.
Then we met for rendezvous No. 3.
The evening started out promisingly: a biblical storm unleashed outside, a table in front of a lively fire, a nice bottle of Petite Sirah to arrive presently.
And then I eyed his potatoes.
In response, my companion’s eyes fell to his fresh white shirt. Then, his lap. “What?” His gaze finally settled on his plate -- a compliments-of-the-chef starter that the waiter had just placed before him. He focused back on me, eyebrows raised, perplexed: “What?”
I didn’t answer immediately. Not to be coy. I was taking it all in. The potatoes -- golden, crispy wedges -- were studded with thick chunks of apple-wood-smoked bacon. All of it glistening with butter. But that’s not what had gotten my attention.
“The chives, " I said. There they were, their slender, bright, deep green stalks strewn about, playing peekaboo. Flirting more overtly than my companion.
“Oh. You like chives?” he said as if I’d finally given him the key to something. A smile bloomed and then something different -- something new -- flickered in his eyes: “I should find out if they have more in the kitchen. Put them on everything you order....”
I matched his gaze, surprised somewhat by my own candor, this different spark. And now, as we eyed the chives, even if they served as a convenient stand-in, they were a clue, an indicator, of an open door. I knew that finally everything was on the table.
I couldn’t go as far to say that chives have the magic of an aphrodisiac -- my personal oyster, aniseed or taste of semisweet dark chocolate. But in all their inscrutable delicateness, chives summon up something strong inside me.
Not as brazen as garlic or onions, chives are sometimes taken for granted. I think this every time I see them toted out in some version of a stainless steel gravy boat by a sullen server and heaped upon a baked potato, by rote, as if to resuscitate.
But it was under similar circumstances that I first connected with chives as a child. A glum waiter plopped them down in a ramekin, reporting that the kitchen had run out of sour cream. I accepted my potato with a pat of butter and salt and liberally sprinkled the lot with chives: The flavor that burst through -- subtle, sharp and warm -- was as complex as it was restrained.
There are very few things I keep in my refrigerator on a regular basis. Certainly, very few things that will perish quickly.
My day always spools out into the late evening. My meals are often caught on the fly -- with friends at restaurants, hunted and gathered from after-party tables.
On any given day, a peek inside my fridge would reveal little more than some domestic bottled water, imported condiments (Thai chili sauce, tarragon mustard), coffee beans and a carton of eggs. Perhaps some cheese -- feta or manchego.
But no matter how top-to-bottom a week I think I’m going to have, how seldom I figure I’ll have the time or energy to stand in front of the stove, I always make sure I have fresh chives stowed away just in case. Just in case a dreamy night of live music calls for a late-night omelet with goat cheese and chives to prolong the conversation.
Just in case friends arrive and I can slide a salmon filet on the grill or toss a few scallops into the skillet and just add ginger, ponzu and a shower of fresh chives. On nesting days, I might snip chives over simple soups -- hot or cold -- to suss out another layer: a simple chicken broth with lemon and chives; a childhood tomato soup with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives. As a thank-you for a couch to crash on last August, a friend whipped up a chilled summer melon gazpacho punctuated with that inscrutable, singular note.
I go through cilantro and sweet basil benders, but I always circle back. There might be fancier, flashier, trendier aromatics -- herbes de Provence, fennel, lemon verbena, arugula or lavender -- but the beauty of chives is that they simply don’t need to be the center of attention. And they are certainly not flavor of the month. They work best to support other flavors, to bolster, and, with a few snips, make the mundane marvelous.
Chive oil is handy for that too. Just simmer chopped chives in canola oil, puree, strain and you’ll have a bottle on hand of liquid chives to give a quick slash of color and intense flavor to mashed potatoes or steamed fish or grilled chicken breast.
To reveal what magic those chives worked (or didn’t) that rainy evening would be indelicate -- decidedly un-chive like. But the plates arrived, the middle courses, main courses. And mysteriously, even without my shy companion’s assist, the chives also continued to arrive, dropped like confetti over scallops, tying up puff pastry stuffed with wild mushrooms and chestnuts so the dish looked like an early Christmas gift.
I took it as a gentle sign of promise. Like the rain, the fire and the music that night the chives didn’t obstruct or overpower what they had been brought in to adorn. They just emboldened what was already there.