LAVENDER

ALTERNATE NAMES (VARIOUS SPECIES) French lavender, English lavender, Italian lavender, Spike lavender, True lavender, Fernleaf lavender, Silver sweet lavender
BOTANICAL NAMES OF CULINARY SPECIES
Lavandula officinalis. Numerous subspecies, notably French
(L. dentate), English
(L. angustifolia)
PLANT FAMILY Mint
(Lamiaceae)
COUNTRY/REGION OF BOTANICAL ORIGIN Europe
MAJOR COUNTRIES/REGIONS OF CULTIVATION France, North America
SEASON OF HARVEST Summer to early fall
PARTS USED Flowers
COLORS Various shades of purple

Lavender flowers are one of the most polarizing flavors I’ve found in the spice world. Either you love them or hate them—and there may be some human physiology at play that determines into which camp you fall. There is ample research to show that some people’s palates interpret lavender as an unpleasant “soapy” flavor, rather than the mildly savory floral character most taste. This can be off-putting at best when you expect your dinner guests to get a savory enhancement from your herbes de Provence but get a mouthful of sudsy flavor instead. This receptor is present in only about ten percent of the population, so try an experiment to see how you perceive
the flavor. A quick batch of lemonade infused with lavender, sweetened mildly, is a perfect way to test yourself on a hot summer’s day.

As for the general uses of lavender, you’ll see it as an integral part of the cuisine of southern France, the leading area of production, as well as in several burgeoning western U.S. styles of cooking. The newest area of significant quality production is in the upper northwest corner of Washington State, which yields plants with an interesting flavor character from the influence of the shorter growing seasons seen west of the Cascade Mountains. Lavender from French sources tends to be bolder and more savory, whereas our “home-grown” has extra sweetness on top of the traditional floral character.
With an abundance of subspecies available to the home gardener, you’ll find even greater flavor swings if you grow and harvest your own lavender. The climate and soil conditions, as with most flowers, affect the final flavor significantly. Harvest—or buy from local growers—early in the season for sweetness, later in the year for the deepest, driest tastes that lavender can offer.
Lavender can be rubbed directly on meats, with a light hand, but since its potency is significant, I’d suggest incorporating it more evenly into blends by grinding. However, there’s no harm in consuming the tiny purple flowers directly, other than their ability to overwhelm more subtle flavors on the palate when you bite into a whole bud.

Layering lavender flowers in plain sugar will infuse the taste in a few short weeks, for use in cookies and pastries. This perfumed sugar will flavor black tea at teatime and enhance creamy scones in the same service. A simple syrup infused with lavender can be kept on hand for making cocktails a bit later in the evening and, indeed, locals in Provence have long made infused liqueurs from their local crops. Bent into the cocktail culture of America, lavender makes a fabulous dry martini with a floral perfume unmatched elsewhere in the bar; just add several sprigs to the gin or vodka bottle and allow to steep for a few days, then strain.

I add lavender in concert with juniper to rubs for lamb and pork, as it tends to cut through fattier flavors nicely. Sautéed with the ground beef and onions to add lift to otherwise heavy meat pies, it shows its floral character well, especially when cooked with a dry red wine, which seems to bring out the best of the very classical flavor. From spiced pâté to flavored chocolate truffles, you can hardly get more French than lavender.

Lavender Shortbread
These fragrant, crumbly shortbread cookies are deceptively simple to make—the trick is getting lavender flavor into the recipe without it becoming overpowering. Making the lavender butter ahead will mellow the taste perfectly—and if you happen to make extra, your morning scones and biscuits will benefit from the effort as much as the shortbread you have for afternoon tea.
MAKES ABOUT 48 COOKIES

¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons (unsprayed) dried lavender
flowers, crushed, plus 1 teaspoon
uncrushed flowers
1 pound unsalted butter, slightly softened
(do not substitute margarine)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 cups all-purpose flour

Combine the honey and crushed lavender in the top of a double boiler and heat over low heat for 15 minutes. Strain the honey, and discard the lavender.

Combine the butter, salt, and whole lavender flowers in a large bowl, add the honey, and beat until completely blended. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or preferably overnight.

Bring the lavender butter to room temperature, Add the sugar and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Slowly add the flour, beating just until blended. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and shape it into a 12-inch-long log. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or until firm enough to slice. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two cookie sheets. Slice the dough into ¼-inch rounds and place 1 inch apart on the cookie sheets.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or just until the shortbread is golden brown at the edges. Let cool on the cookie sheets for 1 to 2 minutes, then, with a wide spatula, carefully remove to a rack to cool.
NOTE: The dough can also be rolled out and cut into shapes. Mix the dough, cover, and refrigerate until chilled. Roll out ½ inch thick on a floured surface and cut into desired shapes. Place 1 inch apart on greased baking sheets and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown at the edges.

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