Lavender in the kitchen adds a special touch

Lavender sugar cookies are a tasty treat any time of year. BY JACK CLEMONS
July 23, 2012

Most of us are familiar with the lavender plant (botanical name lavandula) for its lovely fragrance. You may also know this versatile member of the mint family has a number of valuable qualities, including the antiseptic and healing properties of its essential oils and the soporific virtues of its dried flower buds. The one thing that may not come immediately to mind is how to use culinary lavender.

There are dozens of lavender cultivars, all of which are edible, but some are better choices than others as ingredients. First, be sure of the source: to avoid the possibility of chemical contamination, don’t try to eat lavender from a just-purchased plant, unless it has been organically grown. When buying dried lavender, make sure it is labeled for culinary use; don’t try to cook with lavender purchased at a craft store.

The best-tasting lavenders are the English lavenders such as Munstead and Hidcote as well as the hybrid known as Provence, which doesn’t contain unpleasant turpentine overtones found in many other French lavenders. One reason lavender is so prized is that the flowers will retain their fragrance once they’re dried. Both the flowers and leaves can be used fresh, while buds and stems are dried. Since potency increases with drying, recipes will have specific guidance on how much lavender to use, typically one-third as much dried lavender as fresh.

Lavender imparts a slightly sweet flavor with hints of citrus. The key to cooking with it is to keep in mind that a little will go a long way. Adding too much can make a dish taste like you’re eating perfume or soap. To experiment, start with a tested recipe, maybe the cookies in the photo. Try substituting lavender for rosemary or mint in a dish to add a subtle floral surprise. Another easy way to introduce this unique flavor is through lavender sugar; mix dried buds into sugar and seal the jar tightly; after a few weeks use the sugar in blueberry muffins or pancakes.

Some recipes call for grinding dried lavender buds in a spice grinder with sugar before adding it to a cake or cookie batter. Instead, I prefer crushing the lavender with a mortar and pestle to release the essential oils and keep the buds partially intact for visual interest. Another trick is to heat the buds in a dry skillet to bring out the essential oil and tame the flowery influence. An added benefit is the wonderful aroma that will fill your kitchen.

If you have the luxury of lavender plants in your garden, you can harvest the flowers and use them in their fresh form. The best time is in the morning after the dew has dried and before the midday heat. Immerse the whole stem in water to rinse away any dirt or insects. Blot dry with paper towel or give them a gentle turn in a salad spinner. Stand them in a glass with a little water in a cool place or layer the blooms between moist paper towels in the refrigerator.

The stems are a tasty substitution for bamboo skewers: thread them with fruit or shrimp for grilled kebobs. Spear a plump blackberry on a lavender spike to garnish a glass of champagne or Prosecco. Sprinkle fresh blossoms over salad greens or whisk them into vinaigrette.

Lavender is often found in a spice blend known as herbes de Provence, a mixture that can include basil, fennel, lavender, oregano, rosemary, savory, tarragon and thyme. This combination (or a subset of the herbs on the list) becomes the backbone of a terrific marinade for pork, chicken or lamb as in the recipe below. For those of you interested in seeing culinary lavender in action, come to the Historic Lewes Farmers Market on Saturday at 10 a.m., when I’ll demonstrate using the herb in sweet and savory ways. If you’d like another taste of lavender, I’ll be at the Cordrey Center Wednesday, July 25; check the website for details:

Lavender Sugar Cookies

1/2 C butter
1/2 C sugar
1 t vanilla
1/4 t lemon zest
1 egg
1 1/4 C flour
1/4 t salt
2 t dried lavender
additional lavender buds, optional

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Combine butter, sugar and vanilla in a mixing bowl; beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add egg and lemon zest; mix thoroughly, scraping bowl often. Stir in the flour and salt; mix until almost combined. Add lavender and mix to a smooth consistency. Drop teaspoons of dough onto prepared baking sheet about one inch apart. Sprinkle tops with lavender buds if desired. Bake until slightly golden around the edge, about 12 minutes. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Lavender Marinade

1/2 t sea salt (or to taste)
1/4 t cayenne pepper
juice of 2 lemons
1/2 t lemon zest
1/4 C honey
2 t dried lavender
1/2 t savory

Combine ingredients and pour into zip-top bag. Add food to be marinated (e.g., chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, lamb chops) and tightly seal. Refrigerate overnight for grilling the following day.

Lavender Rice

1 T butter
1 C jasmine rice
1 1/3 C vegetable stock
3-inch lavender stem with leaves
1/3 C chopped pecans
salt, to taste

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium. Stir in rice and cook until golden. Add stock and lavender. When rice begins to boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20 minutes. Toast the pecans in a dry skillet until fragrant. Scoop rice into a serving dish and garnish with pecans. Yield: 4 servings.

Lavender Tabbouleh

1 C bulgur wheat
1 C hot water
1 C finely chopped parsley
1/4 C chopped mint
1/3 C chopped green onion
2 minced garlic cloves
1/2 t oregano
1/2 t dried lavender
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 C lemon juice
1/4 C olive oil
3 seeded, chopped tomatoes

Soak the bulgur wheat in the hot water for 15-20 minutes. Drain any excess water and place the bulgur in a large mixing bowl. Add the parsley, mint, onion, garlic, oregano, lavender, salt and pepper and mix well. Add the lemon juice, olive oil and tomatoes and mix well. Refrigerate for 3 hours; mix well before serving.

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