Thanks to the many of you who viewed part-1 of my conversation with Cat Silirie last week. Part-2 is on the way and will be even more probing, rich and detailed. Which is why it’s not ready yet! In the meantime, I hope to divert you with a bloviating screed against chives. That’s right: chives. I hate them.
When you reach the end of this pithy little rant, I invite you to send comments, especially if you share your own pet culinary peeves. In these parlous times, let’s all release some batshit energy with kvetches about all the crap we shouldn’t be forced to eat. That’ll teach them. What it will teach them, and who “they” even are, will be explored at some future point if I can ever figure it out.
Some years ago I was having dinner at a very “important” restaurant in terms of Michelin stars, fame, price, and overall food-as-art-ness. I don’t mean to sound snide; the food was artful, the ambience was as comfortable as could be, the service was genuinely warm and caring, and it was one of those nights – “how did this ever happen to the likes of me?”
It was tasting-menu only, but that was fine. Places like these encourage a kind of surrender. They knew the foods I don’t eat. All was well, friends were present; this was gonna be good.
Before the actual “menu” started there was a sequence of small bites (amuse-bouche as they are known). Teasers. Witty little schnookies. The first was wonderful, albeit a little heavy on the chive. The next one also had chives. As did the one after that, and the one after the one after that. Four little plates in a row garnished with chive. Well hmmmm, I thought.
The fifth amuse was chive-free, but I was in a kibitzing mood, so I called our server over and said, in what I intended as a joking voice, “The kitchen forgot the chives here,” and when he looked uncomprehendingly at me, I added “This is the first plate that doesn’t have chives.” Still not sure WTF I was talking about, the remark was registered – they do that sort of thing in great restaurants – so that when I returned several years later my server actually said “Mr. Theise, no chives for you…” which, while welcome, wasn’t what I intended.
Leaving aside my clumsy attempt at wittiness, I really did wonder why, in an establishment with delicate, intricate, subtle (to the point of ethereal) food, such an assertive flavor was introduced so early and so insistently. Even if you happen to like chive, you must admit it’s a strong, lingering flavor that tends to make camp in your mouth, so that everything afterwards is influenced by it: I would say distortedby it. It seemed maladroit, the kind of thing my chef-wife would call “cowboy cooking.” I’ve been told there’s “good” chive and even subtle ways to use it, but neary every time I’ve eaten it I’ve been left with an acrid nasty aftertaste that doesn’t play well with others.
Clearly it’s my wine sensibility talking. I’m aware of my singular frames of reference. Yet I’m also the guy who had scrambled eggs one morning in my hotel before a tasting day, and while I scraped off the chives they’d sprinkled over the eggs, the acrid flavor remained and repeated on me most of the morning. No wine tasted as it should have, as was shown when I retasted the next day from bottles I’d taken with me. (I once lost a whole afternoon in Champagne after eating a salad aux gruyere at lunch that was full of raw shallots; I had to revisit three growers whose wines couldn’t have been as bitter as they seemed on that ruined afternoon.)
Chives are homicidal to white wine if your plan is to taste seriously. If you’re just in swill-mode, then no worries, but I often can’t escape the habit of paying close attention to the wine I’m drinking, and with white wines, especially light-bodied delicate ones, alium is public enemy number one. Especially raw alium, and even improperly cooked alium such as over-or-undercooked onions. And garlic? Nearly always. Garlic highjacks the umami of white wine so that what used to be the “finish” is now the clamorous echo of garlic. I do know that aliums are what cooks call “mother flavors,” to which all I can say is start treating your mom right people. Chive, though, is often used as a garnish or to introduce a high-impact flavor with a few simple snips.
This situation doesn’t seem to pertain to red wines unless they are markedly delicate, subtle or old. (And if I had a wine like that I’d take care what I was eating.) And as most of us know, if we eat alium all the time our bodies adjust, and if we don’t then our bodies feel invaded, as will anyone in our proximity for the next 24 hours as the after effects of unaccustomed alium – garlic especially – are, um, extruded. In any case I’m careful, much to the amusement of my friends and (I confess) the pique of my dinner hosts who suddenly have to avoid ingredients they always cook with. I’d rather not be a pill, but I’d also like to taste my wine and to not burp the paint off of parked cars later on.