The smell of lavender may conjure up memories of your grandmother’s perfume, rather than her Sunday dinners. But the herb has played an important role in cuisine for millennia, in recorded use for over 2,500 years—and now making a comeback in professional and amateur kitchens alike.
Over at The New York Times
, Mark Bittman shares his own thoughts on the powerfully fragrant herb with the apt warning “Don’t Let the Lavender Punch You in the Nose.”
As Bittman acknowledges, lavender is not an herb to be used casually; it packs an intense and unmistakable flavor that can quickly overwhelm a dish. Used judiciously, however, it can brighten up lamb, chicken, or—as Bitmann settles on—shredded vegetables in pasta
As a member of the mint family, lavender shares many characteristics with rosemary, to which Bittman frequently compares it; the flower is also closely related to rosemary’s musical bedfellows, sage and thyme. All four are native to the Mediterranean region, finding their way into culinary tradition from Egypt to Provencal. While lavender isn’t a kitchen staple like the others, it can be surprisingly versatile. Pair it with substantial, simple meats and vegetables, adding fragrant notes to a roasted chicken or making use of lavender stems for a shrimp kabob. Alternatively, draw out its delicate floral flavor in a light custard or sorbet.
How to use lavender yourself? Start with a fresh plant, as dried lavender can be overwhelming (and leave your dish tasting like potpourri). If using flowers or leaves, pick the ripest-looking, bypassing any wilted specimens for those with rich color. While both contain the essential oils, the buds will pack the greatest punch of fragrance and flavor.
Whatever part of the plant you turn to, go easy; with lavender, less is more. But the right touch, the flower can lend a distinctive and complex flavor to your repertoire—not to mention a vivid splash of color. It's not often enough you see purple on a plate.