If you're infatuated with lavender's slightly spicy, earthy aroma, you'll love the flavor of this flowering relative of mint. Try it in nearly anything: from cocktails, to roasted vegetables and meats, to creamy desserts.
Falling In Love With Lavender
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
I've long loved lavender for its intense aroma, which draws bees and wanderers alike. I snatch up bars of lightly infused soaps, give sweetly scented candles as gifts, wash my dishes with lavender dish soap, even scrub out my kitchen sink with a lavender-infused cleaning product.
But I had never cooked with it — until now.
Cooking with lavender might be a new love of mine, but it's by no means an unexpected one. I don't go overboard — that is, if you don't count garnishing nearly everything from platters of roasted salmon and grilled asparagus to caramel pots de creme with the pretty purple stuff as overboard. Lately I've found myself coming up with excuses to tuck it into drinks, weeknight dinners and desserts.
I have a penchant for things that are multiuse — baking soda, for example, is a fine environmentally gentle house and teeth cleaner, as well as an essential leavening agent. Or, say, salt — an everyday seasoning that also can ease tired muscles when added to bath water. Lavender is a worthy addition to this list: Rub some lavender essential oil on your temples to soothe a headache, and then cut a fat slice of Lavender-Lemon Tea Cake to sweeten the recovery process.
In fact, I'd argue that lavender is one of the most multipurpose plants around. For me, however, it's even more than that. To eat dishes that make use of this delicate herb is to bring a bit of the outdoors in.
Lavender's slightly spicy, earthy aroma makes me think dreamily of the purple fields in Provence that I long to photograph someday. And so I hang dried bunches picked from my mother's garden in my apartment to remind me that sometime I'll have a plot of my own in which to plant a glorious herb garden.
Despite my longtime lavender amour, I hadn't cooked with it until a trip to the Sonoma Valley this April. Wandering one of the vineyards and eyeing the rain clouds lingering over the green hills, I could smell lavender everywhere. Surely something so lovely to the olfactory system could be used to gently perfume and flavor food as well?
And it can. I've been making even more excuses to visit Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, Calif., where I grew up, to pilfer bunches to bring back with me to San Francisco. I'll snip a few tablespoons every so often from the flowers I've dried to add to nearly everything from simple syrup for a gin and tonic, to a plate of roasted tomatoes.
Lavender (Lavandula) is part of the mint family and is composed of 39 species of flowering plants. Native to the Mediterranean and the southeast regions of India, lavender's range stretches across the Canary Islands, North and East Africa, and southern Europe. It also can be used medicinally as an external antiseptic, brewed into a tea or compress to ease a headache, as an insect repellent or as a soothingly scented stress reliever via lotion, soap or aromatherapy products.
English lavender is the one for cooking. While there are four major varieties — Lavandula latifolia, a Mediterranean grass-like, spiky lavender; Lavandula angustifolia, the English or common lavender, a stockier plant with a full flower; Lavandula stoechas, or French lavender, which has butterfly-like bracts on top of the flower; and Lavandula intermedia, a sterile cross between Mediterranean and English lavender — English lavender contains the lowest amount of camphor and thus is not bitter when cooked.
To pick lavender for culinary use, look for blooms that are almost fully open from plants that have not been sprayed with pesticides. It's best to cut the flowers when the blossoms are dry, around midday, then rub off the buds into a bowl and store away from light until dried.
The plant wants only a lot of sunshine and dry, well-drained soil (one of the reasons it grows so well in Northern California is because our summers are pretty much bone dry from June through September). It's a favorite of bees, and the honey from bees that sip from lavender flowers tastes faintly of the herb.
Culinary lavender is available in some natural food stores, farmers markets and online. Or, if you have a yard or even a large pot, try growing it yourself. It's a perennial, and hardy; the growing season runs from spring until fall (the main thing to remember is to keep the soil well drained).
Though I'm a vegetarian and happily add dried lavender to cakes and savory tarts, a lavender honey-infused glaze would be delicious on roasted meats such as pork or chicken. Or try making lavender sugar: take a tablespoon of lavender buds and mix with 1/4 cup sugar. Process in a food processor until buds have disintegrated, then add another cup of sugar and store in an airtight container. Lavender sugar can be used to sprinkle over cookies, muffins or cakes, or even added to a cup of tea.
When I go home to Sonoma County, I like to run along the back roads near where I grew up. It's a winding route through what remains of the apple orchards once so abundant in the area. If I'm lucky, I'll see hawks perched still and silent on the power lines, Mount St. Helena visible in the distance on clear days.
There's one particular house whose front yard is planted with lavender, and it's the perfect pick-me-up perfume when I pass by, invigorating and soothing at once. I'll take a deep breath, then whisk through the last few miles to come home for a glass of lavender lemonade.