Friday, June 03, 2005

Lavender: A Magic Carpet of Scent & Flavor

The tiny, red ladybug's wings were a blur! There she (or he!) was, in the middle of an immense field of heavenly bliss. As far as a ladybug's eyes -- even as far as a giant's eyes -- could see, the sun reflected lushly from the deep, thick, purple carpet. The fragrance filled the air as each movement of the ladybug's delicate wings created invisible air currents to heighten the aroma. Purple visions of olfactory delight! Lavender fields of summer.

Purple, dark or light, is a color that is associated with power, with riches, with life’s good things. Little wonder then that lavender, as an aromatic herb plant, is so popular. With that gorgeous color going for it, lavender was bound to attract human attention, right from the start! One would just naturally be drawn to its beautiful color – like a ladybug to color or a hummingbird to nectar. Once focused on the plant, one would just as naturally stay right there with it, in aromatic heaven.

A member of the mint family, lavender is a perennial that returns to our gardens, year after year, to delight us. English lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) is probably the variety that we see most often. The two most-common cultivars – should you be inclined to head straight out to your local nursery, now that planting season is here – are Hidcote (a deep violet color) and Munstead (a pale “lavender” color!). Additional English lavender cultivar varieties include Twickle Purple (taller), Gary Lady (silver foliage) and Jean Davis (pink blossoms).

A different lavender variety, more-typically grown for commercial oil production purposes, is called lavandin. French lavender and Spanish lavender are not as sweet, having instead a somewhat medicinal fragrance, which is not as appropriate for cooking.

English lavenders are the best bet for culinary uses. That’s right, I said “culinary uses and cooking!” Most of us have probably been eating lavender for a long time without knowing it. It is routinely used as one of the herbs in the popular Herbs of Provence seasoning blend. Today, more and more recipes feature lavender as an ingredient in its own right!

Flowers and buds, leaves and stems, all have the characteristic aroma and flavor of lavender. For culinary use, the flowers and buds, fresh and dried, are best. Surprisingly, and unlike many other herbs, the fresh flowers are stronger than the dried. Fresh lavender’s taste is fruitier and sweeter; dried lavender has a more-pronounced herbal character, somewhat reminiscent of thyme or marjoram. So, if you are a gardener who is now casting a covetous eye on those plants in your back yard – or on those in the side yard of your neighbor – remember that you won’t need much fresh lavender to provide LOTS of flavor! Especially when it is fresh!

Specialty markets and some regular supermarkets have begun to carry dried lavender in their herbs-and-spices sections. Some, like my local Henry’s Marketplace (www.wildoats.com), offer dried lavender blossoms in bulk, which is a particularly-economical way to buy it. Lavender is astonishingly lightweight. Buy an ounce of lavender blossoms and you will be well on your way to filling up a spice bottle! (If you can find a lavender-in-bulk source, it is also not a bad place to load up on lavender blossoms for non-edible uses, by the way.)

If your local grocery sources come up short in your lavender search, it is always possible to let your fingers do the walking and head on over to some excellent Internet-based sources such as Penzeys or The Spice House (http://www.penzeys.com/ or http://www.thespicehouse.com) for herbs and spices of many varieties. When ordering, it is good to remind oneself about lavender’s light weight – a little goes a long way!

The same reminder is appropriate when you tie on your apron and get down to cooking. Lavender requires a light touch, just as vanilla does. Starting with a small amount is always a good idea, especially if one is new to the use of lavender in a culinary setting. Think “like vanilla” in regard to amounts and you will be off to an auspicious start!

In savory dishes, the underlying camphor-y, resin-y character of lavender seems to come from the same flavor palette as rosemary, thyme and savory, pairing well with them. As a result, lavender also works well with robust foods: chicken, lamb, game birds, pork, salmon, potatoes. I love to sprinkle a whisper-light dusting of lavender buds on roasted or steamed potatoes-in-jackets – or to just toss a pinch of lavender buds into the cooking water when boiling potatoes. In both cases, a little flavor “hello” results with virtually no muss or fuss.

In sweet dishes, lavender is a natural. It pairs especially well with berries, cherries, plums, walnuts, almonds, pistachios and ginger. (Imagine, if you will, lavender-scented gingerbread --something I have been meaning to attempt!). In baked goods, earthy, dried lavender combines beautifully with sugar’s sweetness. Pound cake and buttery shortbread, in particular, are subtle enough to allow the lavender flavor to really shine through.

The following recipe comes from THE FOOD LOVER’S GUIDE TO PARIS, 4th Edition, by Patricia Wells, Workman Publishing, New York:


TEA FOLLIES’ LAVENDER SHORTBREAD COOKIES
(Sables a la Lavande Tea Follies)

1-3/4 cups (250 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup (100 g) sugar
8 tablespoons (4 ounces; 120 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers or fresh rosemary leaves
Pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Line two baking sheets with cooking parchment.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Then, using a fork, slowly incorporate the butter, egg, lavender, and salt, working the mixture into a soft dough. Transfer it to a floured work surface and knead into a ball. Roll the cookie dough to a ¼-inch (7-mm) thickness; then cut it into about thirty-six ½-inch (6-cm) cookies.

3. Transfer the rounds to the prepared baking sheets, place the baking sheets in the oven, and bake until evenly brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a baking rack to cool.

Yield: About 36 cookies

*Copyright Note*: Patricia Wells specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.

These cookies are smoothly-delicious, with the refreshingly-bright note of dried lavender flowers. They are served at the Tea Follies tea salon in Paris’ 9th arrondissement and, like many French baked items, avoid being over-sugared. As a result, the true flavors of the non-sugar ingredients shine through. Delectable!

Patricia Wells is a notable author in today’s culinary universe and recently received the 2005 James Beard Award, Best International Cookbook, for THE PROVENCE COOKBOOK, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2004. That award goes very well, I am sure, with the numerous other awards that she has amassed to date, for her other delightful books!

Ms. Wells is the only foreigner to have served as food critic for the French weekly news magazine L’EXPRESS and is currently restaurant critic for THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE. Originally from Wisconsin, she divides her time between two home locations, Paris and Provence, France, both of which also serve as teaching locations for her popular multi-day cooking courses. Her website is filled with up-to-date information about her books and cooking courses and also includes a comprehensive archive of her IHT reviews of restaurants worldwide(http://www.PatriciaWells.com).

Ms. Wells’ outstanding guide to the culinary scene in Paris (from which the lavender cookies recipe comes), is a treasure trove of ideas and information for the food-oriented visitor. Not only for those of the cooking persuasion, though, the guidebook features restaurants, cafes, bistros, pastry shops, bakeries, tea salons, wine bars, cheese shops, prepared-foods shops, chocolate shops, kitchenware shops, recipes and enough photographs to satisfy even armchair travelers.

Descriptions in all categories focus on real content, not just the typical, basic data of general travel guidebooks. Narrative descriptions fill in the details that provide the context and background that go into making each location uniquely itself – and uniquely interesting to the visitor, as a result.

Perhaps, like me, you will read a bit as you eat some of the freshly-baked lavender cookies. Silently store away plans for that next visit to Paris -- or reminisce about the last one. Daydream briefly about tasty dishes at street-side café tables and brilliant purple lavender in Provencal gardens. Idyllic? Certainly! And snug as a bug in a lavender rug!

Bon appetit!

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

The cookie recipe sounds SO good that it makes my mouth water! Course, I'm a lavender fan from way back. I had a lot of trouble growing it in my garden until I started harvesting the flowers quite soon after they opened. Cutting the flowers off really helps the rest of the plant to grow big and bushy. Then, it has the strength to flower again. Thx for the names of the different varieties too.

marc&terri said...

We used the Food Lovers Guide to Paris on our last trip and it really helped us to make good use of our time. We knew where we wanted to focus and also added things to our agenda that we wouldn't even have known about otherwise. Highly recommended reading! Thx for the reminder of how much fun we had in Paris!

Marc&Terri

Ricki said...

Super idea to use lavender in cookies. Patricia Wells has such good books and recipes are always very good. Didn't know that she had this guide book. Sounds cool!

Carolyn said...

I like to use a combination of dried lavender and mustard seeds as a coating for salmon. (I saw this in a book somewhere but can't remember what book!) It's hard to describe but is a really good combination of tastes. I like the idea of buying lavender from a bulk, serve-yourself provider; I'll check that out!

Pat R said...

I have the Paris food guide book and it's really good just as you said. (Still saving the money to go to Paris, but planning to use the info soon, probably next year.)

Anonymous said...

Ooh - I have Patricia Wells Paris Cookbook and love it, too. I use dried lavender on chicken with some thyme and garlic and like that combination. Penzeys has wonderful spices that are very fresh.

Anonymous said...

Lavender honey is one of my favorites but I didn't know that you could use dried lavender flowers in cooking. Thx for the good ideas. I'll look for lavender in the stores.

Anonymous said...

Marilyn -

Your timing is perfect, as usual! Our garden group is doing a potluck lunch and each item is supposed to feature something that we grow in our own gardens. My category is desserts and the lavender cookie recipe will be perfect!!!!!!! Miss you, good neighbor!

Lori

Anonymous said...

The kids can't wait for our lavender to blossom this summer so that they can harvest & dry it! A lovely idea!