Food & Drink

Lavender where you'd least expect it

Lavender For The Washington Post

Certain herbs seem to belong in certain dishes: Sage defines poultry stuffing. Tarragon dazzles in sauce béarnaise and, as it happens, lavender is killer in pork fried rice.

Oh, wait. You don't put it in your fried rice? Well, you're missing out.

Those who sample my lavender-enhanced version often comment on its tempting herbal element, but they never can identify it, perhaps because it seems refreshing and modern and not at all how they imagine lavender tastes. I'm obliged to clear things up for you: Lavender does not have to taste like it smells in lotions and soaps.

In fact, this herb has a chameleon-like spicy, citrusy, piney character that mingles with and amps up the flavor of fruits, nuts, creamy cheeses and robust meats. It can lend a palate-pleasing pop in far more dishes and cuisines than you would ever guess.

I began experimenting with lavender in baking a decade ago and was soon hooked. Like vanilla, lavender added a little something extra to nearly every pudding or cake or meringue. In recipes with oranges, lemons or honey, that something extra was significant. Today I wouldn't consider preparing orange marmalade, lemon pots de crème or my sublime candied pecans without it.

But I didn't see the potential of lavender in contemporary savory dishes until more recently, thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi's lavender-infused burrata with blood oranges. At his high-profile London restaurant Nopi, customers order this signature appetizer 1,000 times each month. "It's never left the menu," he told me during a recent phone interview from his home; the recipe appears in his award-winning "Nopi" cookbook.

"When we were creating it, we felt it was missing something aromatic. And we really like using aromatics" he says. "As soon as we tried lavender, we knew it was right." Its pungency nicely balances the sweetness of the fruit and the creaminess of the cheese.

Another Ottolenghi dish that demonstrates lavender's power includes peak-of-season apricots or peaches roasted with honey and garnished with tiny lavender blossoms. "The fruits caramelize, and the aroma and flavor are wonderful," he says. I liked the sound of the dish so much, I riffed on it in my own stove-top version.

Here in the Washington area, Garrison chef Rob Weland likewise pairs lavender with peaches and with many other ingredients on his seasonal American menus. "In summer we do peaches en papillote. It's amazing when you cut open the parchment and get the aroma," he says. He also does a lavender-honey-glazed duck and occasionally teams quail and other game with lavender. In warm weather, he creates "all sorts of lavender palate cleansers and dessert granitas."

"It isn't 'perfumey,' as some think," Weland says. "When used properly, it can be phenomenal in food." Like rosemary and cilantro, lavender is potent, so less is often more, especially for those who've never tasted it before.

And there's the rub. When you are ready to cook with it at home, make sure it's designed for the kitchen, not for crafting. Fresh and dried lavender buds typically can be used interchangeably, but fresh is more potent and infuses mixtures more quickly. Good sources for culinary dried lavender are gourmet and health food stores, both in the Washington metropolitan region and online. Although the herb's harvesting season is winding down, you might still find fresh lavender and will almost certainly find newly dried lavender at local lavender farms and farmers markets.

Fresh lavender bunches begin drying out almost immediately after being cut, and once fully dried, all bunches are harvested the same way: Simply rub the spikes between your fingers over a large plate to capture the fragrant buds that fall away. The aroma and taste are extra zingy, and the vivid purple bloomlets look lovely strewn across a sweet or savory dish. But be sure to use only pesticide-free plants. Specifically seek out culinary varieties: The sweetest and tastiest of all are the "English" angustifolia lavenders; alternatively, go for the "French" lavandin (hybrid) lavenders such as the famous "Provence."

What you should avoid are all the "Spanish" or stoechas lavenders (those with pine cone-shaped spikes and little floral topknots) and the ones labeled "fern-leaf" or "denta." Those are too peppery and resinous to eat.

Innovative chefs are always looking to deliver novel flavors and bigger, bolder sensory experiences for their customers, which is doubtless why lavender is having a moment. We can all take cooking and baking to a new level by following their lead.

Baggett is the author of numerous cookbooks. Her next work will be "The Art of Cooking With Lavender," coming late this fall.

Lavender at a glance

▪ Like tea, lavender flavor is best when the fresh spikes or dried buds are combined with barely boiling liquid and allowed to stand. Steeping it in hot water, oil, cream or other liquids is a common way to extract lavender's flavor for cooking. Taste the infused mixture occasionally, and once the lavender flavor has reached the desired strength, strain the liquid through a fine-mesh sieve. It's then ready to use. Avoid a long infusion or lengthy cooking of lavender, as they make the herb taste harsh and stale.

▪ Crushing, grinding or mashing lavender into dry ingredients such as salt, sugar and flour using a mortar and pestle or food processor is another handy infusion method. For fine texture, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any remaining lavender bits before adding the mixture in a recipe.

▪ Try substituting lavender in recipes that call for rosemary or thyme. Lavender has a somewhat similar scent and pungency yet is a nice change of pace, especially when paired with lamb, pork, smoked meats, duck and poultry. Like rosemary leaves, dried lavender buds are often a bit too coarse to add as-is to some recipes. You can chop them or crush them using a mortar and pestle. Or prepare a large quantity in advance by putting at least 1/4 cup in a food processor; process for four or five minutes or until coarsely ground. (The same job will take about a minute in a spice grinder.)

▪ Pluck the tiny bloomlets, called corollas, from fresh lavender spikes and use them to add beautiful color and tempting little pings of flavor to dishes. You can also garnish using whole sprigs and chopped tender leaves; the latter are less potent than the spikes.

Local lavender farmers are now cutting, bundling and filling drying sheds with this year's crop, so take advantage of what's around. My fried rice could be a great place to start, with a hit of lavender you'll realize really belongs.

Lavender Pom-Berry Sorbet

Lavender has a great affinity for blackberries, blueberries, pomegranate and honey. The honey not only rounds out the flavor but helps keep the sorbet texture smooth.

MAKE AHEAD: The berry-juice mixture needs to infuse for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. The sorbet needs to firm up in the freezer for at least 1 hour before serving, and it can be frozen in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.

2 cups fresh or frozen/defrosted blackberries, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/4 cups pure bottled pomegranate-blueberry juice, plus more as needed

6 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup clover honey, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh culinary lavender spikes (bloom heads) or 1 tablespoon dried culinary lavender buds (see headnote for Candied Lavender Pecans, at top right)

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

Thoroughly stir together the blackberries, water, pomegranate-blueberry juice, sugar and honey in a medium nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring. Adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently, and cook until the berries are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the lavender and lime juice, then remove from the heat.

Taste, and thoroughly stir in a little more honey, as needed. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour (fresh lavender will infuse much more quickly than dried buds). Taste; if the lavender flavor is pronounced enough, strain the mixture through a sieve into a 4-cup measure. Press down with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. For more intense lavender flavor, refrigerate, tasting occasionally, for up to 3 hours before straining. Stir enough additional pomegranate-blueberry juice into the measure to yield a generous 33/4 cups.

Refrigerate, covered, until well chilled. Pre-chill a storage container to hold the finished sorbet. Process the mixture in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer's directions. Immediately put the sorbet in the chilled freezer container and freeze until firm, at least 1 hour, before serving. Freeze for up to 2 weeks.

Nutrition | Per 1/2-cup serving: 140 calories, 0 g protein, 37 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 34 g sugar

8 servings (makes 1 quart)

Quick Ham-Fried Rice with Lavender

You'll be surprised how well the floral herb marries with pork in this quick stir-fry, providing a certain yet subtle something extra.

If you have leftover cooked rice on hand, you can quickly turn it into a meal with this recipe. Use the larger quantity of ham suggested for a main dish, the smaller amount for a side.

From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.

2 tablespoons safflower oil, sesame oil or other vegetable oil

1 cup thinly sliced scallions (white and green parts), plus 1 1/2 tablespoons coarsely chopped scallions (white and light-green parts), for optional garnish

1 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup seeded, chopped red bell pepper

1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons finely minced fresh culinary lavender spikes (bloom heads) or coarsely ground dried culinary lavender buds (see headnote for Candied Lavender Pecans, at top right)

1 1/4 teaspoons minced or grated peeled fresh ginger root

1 to 1 1/2 cups trimmed and coarsely diced thick-sliced baked ham or pre-cooked ham steak

2 1/2 cups cooked and cooled long-grain white or brown rice

1/2 cup golden or dark seedless raisins, or a combination

2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons low- sodium soy sauce, or more as needed

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons salted peanuts or cashews, for garnish (optional)

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, stir in the cup of sliced scallions, the celery, bell pepper, lavender (to taste), ginger and ham; cook, stirring frequently,

Thoroughly stir in the rice, raisins, 2 1/2 tablespoons of the soy sauce and the black pepper (to taste). Continue cooking, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the vegetables are crisp-tender and the rice is heated through. Taste, and add more soy sauce, as needed.

Transfer to a serving bowl or divide among individual plates. Garnish with the chopped scallions and peanuts or cashews, if using. Serve right away.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 3, using safflower oil, baked ham, brown rice and golden raisins): 420 calories, 15 g protein, 63 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 900 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar

2 or 3 servings

Candied Lavender Pecans

These make wonderful cocktail munchies, snacks and garnishes for salads and cheese plates. If you can bear to part with them, package them nicely and give as a gift to somebody you really like.

For gently flavored sugar, use only a tablespoon of dried lavender; add up to 2 tablespoons for a pronounced aroma and taste.

Buy only lavender designed for cooking purposes; it is available at La Cuisine in Alexandria, Va.; Balducci's and Williams-Sonoma in Bethesda, Md.; Penzeys Spices in Falls Church, Va., and Rockville, Md.

MAKE AHEAD: The nuts can be stored in an airtight container at a cool room temperature for up to 2 weeks or refrigerated for up to 1 month.

From cookbook author Nancy Baggett.

For the lavender sugar

1 to 2 tablespoons dried culinary lavender buds (see headnote)

2 cups granulated sugar

For the candied pecans

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed

2 cups unsalted pecan halves

For the lavender sugar: Combine the lavender (to taste) and 1/2 cup of the sugar in a food processor. Process until the lavender is ground very finely, 4 to 5 minutes. (Alternatively, grind the lavender and sugar in a spice grinder for 1 minute.) Stir the ground lavender sugar through a fine-mesh strainer, then return the strained mixture to the processor. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar; process for 1 minute or until well combined. You'll use 1/2 cup of the lavender sugar for the pecans; reserve the rest in an airtight container at room temperature.

For the candied pecans: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil.

Use a wooden spoon to stir together 1/2 cup of the lavender sugar and the 1/4 teaspoon of salt in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar starts to melt, about 2 minutes. Working carefully, continuously stir and scrape the sugar into a pool until most is melted, being careful to avoid splashups.

Stir in the pecans until coated; this should take about 2 minutes. Don't worry if the coating isn't completely even. If at any point the pan smokes or the sugar or pecans smell burned, lift the pan from the burner and continue to stir.

Immediately transfer the skillet to the oven. Roast (middle rack), stirring every 3 or 4 minutes, until nicely browned and fragrant, but not burned; this should take 7 to 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven; immediately sprinkle over additional garnishing salt, if desired. Stir the pecans well, then spread them out on the foil-lined pan. Use forks to separate any clumps or clusters; don't touch the nuts, as they will be extremely hot. Let them cool completely, then break up any remaining clumps with your hands before serving or storing.

Nutrition | Per 1/4-cup serving: 220 calories, 2 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 13 g sugar

8 servings (makes 2 cups)