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.
A few ways to jump-start your lavender immersion:
■ 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 least¼ 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 their 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.
Baggett is the author of numerous cookbooks. Her next work will be “The Art of Cooking With Lavender,” coming late this fall. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingonpost.com.