Kitchen Shrink: Riders of the Purple Sage! Lavender buds are coming

KITCHEN SHRINK:

Since I was a teen, the lovely lavender flower has been my secret weapon — I used it to create a soporific soothing bath with scented salts or fresh buds sprinkled in the water to ease my achy muscles, and then lull me into a restful sleep; dotted the essential oil on my temples to ward off a migraine, and on pressure points to relieve stress before an exam or job interview.

Now I use this fragrant flower, which has seamlessly crossed over from the aromatherapy world into the culinary one, to dial up both sweet and savory dishes, along with sips of all manners. Add some lavender to your table with sophisticated yet sassy notes of floral and citrus, and you'll feel as if it's springtime in Paris.

An Extended Family

A member of the mint family and close relation to sage, rosemary and thyme there are dozens of varieties within the lavender clan, including hybrids and dwarfs cultivated in vibrant and muted shades of purple, blue, white, red, pink and yellow. Not all lavender is created equal, some better suited for ornamental, medicinal and cosmetic uses, others for culinary ones like the species Lavandula angustifolia.

The latter, with Mediterranean origins, is known for its beautiful blooming purple fields in Provence. These dried and crushed buds are blended with other dried herbs typically rosemary, marjoram, thyme and oregano to create a mélange known as herbes de Provence, emblematic of the southeast region of France. The culinary lavender especially the "Munstead" cultivar has a sweeter, mellower fragrance than other species with a burst of woody notes and minty nuances whether fresh or dried.

Flower Power

Lavender not only adds an oomph of earthy and exotic flavor to various dishes, but also a dose of Vitamin A to boost eye and skin health, calcium to bone up the skeletal system, and iron to pump hemoglobin into the blood to ward off anemia. As an added boon the healing herb also contains caffeic acid with powerful anti-cancer properties.

It's Homegrown

Perfect for hot and sunny California climes, lavender is drought-resistant as well as rabbit repellent, and a pollinator's paradise, attracting bees and butterflies to its fragrant flowers. It's a breeze to grow in low acid, semi-arid soil of a homeowner's garden or in well-drained planter boxes on windowsills of apartment dwellers. If you don't have a green thumb, you can buy fresh or dried lavender at natural food markets or specialty spice shops.

Both stems and flower buds are edible; simply snip slender stems and place single file on a paper towel to dry. While buds can be tossed fresh in assorted dishes or oven-roasted and crushed for baking, stewing, braising, poaching, infusing, brewing and garnishing.

A Budding Gourmet

Versatile lavender enlivens all meals throughout the day, along with desserts, condiments, snacks, cocktails, refreshing cold drinks, and soothing hot ones. Breakfast offerings include a fluffy herbes de Provence omelet, lavender roasted fingerlings, a zippy Meyer lemon lavender scone or bold blackberry lavender pancakes, along with a perky cup of honey lavender tea to rev up your day.

For lunches and dinners toss fresh lavender buds in chilled soups, and salads with feta and dried fruits, or blend dried herbs in vinaigrette dressings, risottos, pilafs, stuffings and mashed roots. Roast a rack of lamb with a lavender rosemary rub, or grill wild-caught salmon with a pistachio lavender crust.

For desserts, incorporate the heavenly herb into ice creams or sorbets, biscottis, shortbreads, crumb or honey cakes, crème brûlées, and cheesecakes.

Wash it down nicely with lavender-infused refreshers like raspberry lemonade, iced green and mint teas, and spritzers. Make a toast to the beloved herb with a lip-puckering lemon lavender vodka tonic, a blueberry lavender martini, or a lavender peach Bellini. Cheers!

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Recipe: Lavender Apricot Goat Cheese Spread

Ingredients: 1 8-ounce log of chevre goat cheese or 8-ounce wheel of Humboldt Fog; 1 teaspoon dried, finely crushed lavender; 3 tablespoons of apricot preserves; 3 tablespoons of chopped pecans; sea salt to taste.

Method: Slice log in rounds or wheel in wedges. Assemble on cheese platter. Drizzle with apricot preserves, sprinkle lavender and nuts, and dash of salt. Serve with crackers and bread of choice.

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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