Lavender has spirited role in culinary field
One of the many pleasures of visiting the Historic Lewes Farmers Market is discovery: from green tomatoes as sweet as grapes to slender white eggplant to rich variations of goat cheese. While I’m not sure why the lamb stand sells peacock feathers, I have become acquainted with the many virtues of lavender from the ladies at the Lavender Farms table.
For centuries, lavender has been prized for its medicinal and therapeutic qualities. Ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians distilled lavender’s essential oil for healing wounds, relieving pain and fighting infection. The fragrance was a favorite for perfuming and anointing. And, it’s no surprise to learn of lavender’s utility in the laundry, as its name comes from the Latin lavare, to wash. Which is also why 12th-century English washerwomen were called “Lavenders” for their use of the flowers in their chores.
During her reign, Queen Victoria appointed a Purveyor of Lavender Essence to the Queen reflecting the plant’s popularity as a cure for the migraine headaches the monarch suffered. When antiseptics were in short supply during World War I, lavender oil was sometimes used to dress battlefield wounds. By the early 20th century, the ubiquitous scent of lavender had fallen out of fashion. Of course, everything old is new again and today, you’ll find lavender in everything from insect repellent (for both people and pets) to insomnia remedies.
And yet, for all that’s been said about its valuable oil, lavender’s membership in the mint family gives it a starring role in culinary applications as well. Dried or fresh lavender buds are ingredients in a wide variety of recipes, adding a combination of slightly sweet floral notes mixed with lemony citrus hints. But when it comes to cooking, not all lavender is created equal.
You’ll want fragrance and flavor to highlight your dish, but you don’t want to eat perfume. Therefore, the first choice in culinary circles is English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia officinalis) as seen in the photo. Closely related to rosemary, sage and thyme, lavender works well either as the focus seasoning or as a companion to other herbs.
If you’ve never cooked with lavender, an easy starting point would be the cookie recipe from Lavender Farms in Milton. You can either purchase the scented sugar or make your own with buds or ground lavender. Remember, the potency of the flowers will increase when they’re dried; figure one-third as much dried as fresh. Be sure to use specifically labeled culinary lavender, or plants you’ve cultivated yourself. Flowers from florists, nurseries, or garden centers may have been treated with pesticides and might not be safe to eat.
Other easy lavender dishes to consider are grilled kebobs of fruit or shrimp threaded on lavender stems; lavender flowers tossed into a salad or a glass of champagne for a lovely violet garnish; or lavender substituted for rosemary, especially in focaccia bread. Lavender lends itself to savory dishes, too, especially in combination with fennel and thyme. Suggestions from Lavender Farms include adding it to Boeuf Bourguignon, coq au vin and hearty tomato sauces.
A familiar place to find lavender is in the mixture known as Herbs de Provence. You can buy this in the grocery or mix your own from lavender, basil, rosemary, dill, fennel and summer savory (I like to add just a pinch of sea salt). Whisked into vinaigrette with olive oil, vinegar and lemon, Herbs de Provence adds a splash of flavor to a salad dressing or becomes a tasty marinade for chicken.
Once I had my jar of lavender sugar and a bowl of lavender buds, I was ready to try my hand at scones. These were light and tender, with the faintest hint of sweetness, perfect with clotted cream (see photo) – Queen Victoria would have been pleased.
Instant Lavender Sugar
1 T dried lavender
2/3 C sugar
Grind the lavender into a powder with a clean coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Combine with sugar and store in a tightly covered container.
Cured Lavender Sugar
Place 2 inches of sugar in the bottom of a 2-cup container. Cover with a thin layer of lavender buds. Continue to alternate sugar and lavender until full. Seal and allow to steep for at least two weeks before using. To use the sugar, either sift out lavender pieces or leave them mixed in with the sugar.
Lavender Fields Sugar Cookies
1 C softened butter
1/2 C lavender sugar
1/8 t salt
2 C flour
2 T lavender sugar
In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and 1/2 C sugar until fluffy. Add salt and flour, mixing thoroughly to combine. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. Preheat oven to 350 F. Form the chilled dough into small rounds using a melon baller. Roll balls in lavender sugar and place on ungreased cookie sheet about one inch apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
2 1/4 C flour
1 T baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/2 C butter
1 t dried lavender buds
1/3 C lavender sugar
2/3 C cream
1 T milk
Preheat oven to 425 F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into chunks and work into the dry ingredients with a fork or pastry blender until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and lavender buds. Add cream and stir into a soft, sticky dough. Divide dough in half and form into two balls. Turn out dough onto a floured surface and pat into two circles 1/2-inch thick. Cut each into six triangles, place pieces on lined baking sheet and brush tops with milk. Bake until golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. Yield: 1 dozen scones.
For more information
To learn more about lavender, from how to cultivate the herb to making use of your harvest of fragrant flowers, visit Lavender Fields Farm. The only lavender farm in Delaware is located one-half mile south of Route 9 between Lewes and Georgetown at 18864 Cool Springs Road. There you will find charming gardens and a well-stocked gift shop offering you a comprehensive introduction to lovely lavender. For hours and more information, visit www.lavenderfieldsde.com.