By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
Most folks have the same reaction when I tell them lavender is one of my favorite things to cook with. “Lavender! You can’t eat lavender! That’s just for soap.” If that’s what you’re thinking too, you couldn’t be more wrong.
No doubt, lavender is a popular ingredient for soaps and perfumes. For centuries, lavender has been used for bathing, medicinal purposes and hygiene. The Egyptians used the herb in the mummification process. In Bible times, the herb was known as spikenard and was extremely valuable and costly. Queen Elizabeth I bathed in water scented with lavender and used it as a deodorant. She also drank lavender tea to help alleviate what we would describe today as migraine headaches. In times of war, soldiers’ wounds were bathed with lavender to help with the healing process. It has been used as an insect repellant, a sleep aid and an aphrodisiac. The very word, lavender, comes from the Latin “lavo” that means “to wash.”
But it doesn’t stop there. This amazingly versatile little flower-herb imparts an absolutely lovely flavor to many foods. In fact, the French pasture lambs in lavender fields for grazing to make their meat more tender and fragrant. Lavender as a culinary element has, equally, been in use for many centuries. There is mention of cooking with lavender in the documents of ancient Rome as far back as 2,500 years ago. In Victorian times, the use of lavender in cooking became widely popular, especially for accompaniments to afternoon tea, such as lavender cookies. These are wonderful little, buttery cookies that are oh-so-fragrant and have just a slight floral note. I’ve never made them for anyone who hasn’t raved about them and asked for more!
Why am I telling you all this? Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a beautiful event in the Hill Country. There are many substantial wineries in our great state. We’ve talked about this before. Texas has become a first class wine producer, in her own right, competing against many wines from California, Oregon and even Europe.
One such winery is Becker Vineyards, just outside of Fredericksburg. Becker Vineyards also happens to be the largest grower of lavender in the state, which in turn, helps to impart beautiful flavors to their wines. Every year, the vineyard hosts a lavender festival to celebrate the abundant crop and show off a bit.
With a host of entertainment, lavender inspired meals, winery tours, wine tastings, chef demos, artisans and crafters, food and every kind of lavender product imaginable, the event promised to be worth the drive. Plus, event attendance is free. Score! So, my pal, Rhonda, and I decided to head on down to check it out. Marked with flowing purple ribbons, the place was hard to miss. As we turned down the long drive leading to the vineyard, we could hear music coming from the grounds. The air was fragrant with the smell of sweet lavender. We spent a happy afternoon sipping wine and shopping for lavender goodies. The day turned sunny and warm, so of course that meant we needed to buy frivolous girly sun hats.
As you might imagine, one of my favorite activities of the day was the wine tastings. For $10, participants receive a souvenir wine glass to keep and their choice of six different tastings. I started with some lightweight whites, moved on to the hearty reds and then finished out with a couple of sweet dessert wines.
My favorite of the day was one called Raven, which is the vineyard’s flagship wine. It is a blend of Petit Verdot and Malbec, and man, does the vintner do a bang up job with this one. This red is absolute velvet on the tongue, with flavors of raspberry, spice and a nice floral note at the finish, which I’m sure has to do with the lavender, growing side by side with the grapes in the vineyard.
Over on the lawn, the Raggedy Cats were playing some funky bluegrass and Chef Leo had the whole place smelling incredible with his cooking demo of Grilled Tenderloin Medallion with Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce and Pasilla Chile Grits. Yum! Even now, thinking about it makes me want to get the grill fired up.
One of the most interesting demonstrations was about lavender distillation. I felt like I was watching an old episode of M.A.S.H. where Hawkeye and B.J. are moon shining homemade gin. Uh, oh! I’m tattling my age, now!
Returning home, I was inspired by all the sights and smells and tastes I’d just experienced. As I said, I love to cook with lavender. I make things like Lavender Cremé Brûlée and Strawberry Lavender Tartlets with Lavender Whipped Cream and drizzled with Lavender Honey.
I also like the taste of lavender with meat and poultry. Lavender is from the mint family and tastes best combined with herbs such as fennel, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage. In fact, a popular combination sold on the spice aisle is called Herbs de Provence. This is a mixture of lavender, savory, thyme, marjoram, mint, fennel seeds, tarragon, basil and chervil. This mix of herbs is used extensively in French cooking, especially to season meat.
If you want to try it for yourself, small packets of lavender can usually be found at stores like Whole Foods, or most health food stores. The packets of lavender in the culinary section of the store are no different than what is found in beauty products section, so purchase whichever you can find or is cheaper. Of course, if you are cooking meat or veggies, you could just purchase the Herbs de Provence on the spice aisle at your regular grocery store. If you do buy straight dried lavender, store any leftover lavender in the freezer to make it last longer.
You may even consider growing your own. It’s easy to grow and flourishes in containers or in the ground. To harvest, cut the blooming stems, about halfway down when there are blooms more than halfway down the flower part. I grow lavender in a pot on my patio. When I’m ready to harvest it, I bundle about 10 stems together and bind them with a piece of string or rubber band. Then I hang it upside down, so the flowers are down, from a hook in a dark, well-ventilated closet for about 10 days. At that point, I can easily remove the dried flowers, which I keep in a sealed jar in the freezer.
An easy thing to start with, is Lavender Sugar or Lavender Honey, which can be used in any recipe you would normally use non-lavendered sugar or honey, such as coffee or lemonade. It also makes a nice homemade gift.
For Lavender Sugar, simply mix equal parts dried lavender flowers and sugar. Store in an airtight container.
For Lavender Honey, put 2 teaspoons dried lavender flowers in a piece of cheesecloth and tie shut into a little baggy shape. Place in a saucepan. Pour 2 cups honey into the saucepan, over the lavender. Heat until just warmed. Turn the heat off and allow to steep 1 hour. Take out the baggy of lavender and store the honey in a sealed, sterilized jar.
When you’re ready to adventure with lavender a bit more, try this company-worthy Roasted Chicken recipe that is sure to impress. By the way, it’s incredible with a side of fresh, sautéed artichokes.
Renee’s Lavender Roasted Chicken
1 whole chicken, any size, washed with any cavity packing removed
8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon sized pieces
3 lemons, cut into quarters
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons dried lavender
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme, plus several whole sprigs
½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 bulb fennel, cut into 2 inch pieces (fronds saved and set aside)
4 large carrots, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 sweet yellow onion, cut into 2 inch pieces
olive oil for drizzling
¼ cup dry white wine
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Set oven to 425 degrees. Wash chicken and pat dry. Loosen the skin from the meat around the breast area on each side. Push pats of butter under the skin and back across the breast meat so that there are an even number of butter pats on each side. Rub the inside of the chicken with salt and pepper and stuff with 1 lemon, bay leaf, 1 piece of fennel, and one piece of onion. Set aside.
2. Mix together the remainder of the vegetables. Pour the wine in the bottom of a roasting pan and scatter the vegetables on top. Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper, a small amount of the chopped thyme, sage and lavender. Place the chicken on top of the vegetables and rub with salt, pepper and the remainder of the herbs. Tie the chicken’s legs together with kitchen twine and tuck the wings under the body.
3. Roast for about 1 ½ hours or until chicken juices run clear. Remove chicken to a cutting board, cover loosely with aluminum foil and allow to rest about 20 minutes. Carve the chicken and serve with vegetables.