Baja Cooking on the Edge
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BAJA Cooking on the Edge

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Deb's Writings


Purple Haze

Fields of purple tasseled spikes of lavender in bloom are wonderful to see. And it’s a bit of heaven to breathe in the clean, sharply pungent scent that rises from a single, sun-warmed plant. There’s always a place in my garden for lavender. I rub a little between my fingers as I pass by, or put a flower spike in my car and enjoy it for days.

Whether inhaled or ingested, lavender heals, transforms and relaxes, inducing a sense of tranquility and peace. In fact, lavender tea was used by England’s Queen Elizabeth 1 to treat her Armada-sized migraines.

Humans have long known the soothing qualities, penetrating scent and infection-fighting powers of this sweetest of herbs. Known as spikenard in biblical times, lavender probably moved around the eastern Mediterranean with Phoenician and Arab traders. It came in time to the ancient Greeks, and thence, like all things, to the Romans, who took it with them to the farthest reaches of their Empire. Lavender’s botanical name lavendula is based on the Latin word lavar: to wash, clean, refresh and renew. In times past, laundry (derived from the same Latin root) was aired outdoors on great swathes of lavender plants. Lavender made the Dark Ages smell better, and the Renaissance, and reached its peak of popularity during the late Victorian era. Today lavender is largely used for its aromatic properties, transformed into infusions and essential oils, potpourri and candles, dream pillows and bath scents.

As a culinary herb, lavender has an equally long history, particularly around its native Mediterranean where it is beloved by bees, butterflies and cooks alike. The venerable mixture known as herbes de Provence carries the very essence of the herb-covered sunny hills and cool pine forests of southern France. While Provence is still the lavender (and perfume) capital of the world, fine lavender is grown in this country—some right here in Valley Center (see Resources.)

Lavender, like all herbs, offers both medicinal qualities and wonderful flavor. Over the centuries, it has found its way into sweets and breads, marinades and spice rubs, teas and jellies, ice creams and preserves. The flavor of lavender is not remotely like a sweet perfume; it tastes like something spiky and purple should taste – sharp, even slightly metallic, with a penetrating herbal pungency similar to rosemary, with which it is often combined.

Lavender can be overpowering by itself. It plays better as part of a choir of tastes, combining nicely with citrus, mint, berries, ginger, figs and vanilla, or other strong Mediterranean herbs such as marjoram, oregano and fennel. Start with a small amount and increase to your taste. Depending, of course, on the size of the Armada on your personal horizon.

Culinary Lavender

Both English lavender (L. augustifolia) and french lavender ( L. provence) work well with food. The french variety is not as aromatic, but has a pronounced herbal taste.

Almost all recipes begin by infusing lavender into a liquid—water, cream, honey, or wine. Infusions can be made with dried or fresh lavender. The magic proportion seems to be 1 tablespoon of dried flower buds and 2 tablespoons of fresh to each cup of liquid. To infuse, heat the lavender buds in the liquid until just below the boiling boil, then cover and set aside to infuse. Infusion can take anywhere from 15 minutes to overnight, depending on how strong you want the flavor to be. Anything to be served cold should be stronger, since cold dulls the flavors. Dairy products should infuse in the refrigerator.

Another way to introduce a lavender flavor to your cooking is to use the Lavender Sugar in tea or in sweet recipes. If you are purchasing dried lavender, it should be powerfully scented and clearly marked as culinary or organic lavender; this ensures it is safe to eat. If you’re growing your own, pick the unsprayed flower buds early in the day and strip off the flower buds, then gently shake the buds in a coarse sieve to remove bits of calyx and leaves. Rinse gently, drain thoroughly and spread out on paper towels to dry.

Lavender Resources

Lavender is widely grown in the United States. Close to home in San Diego County, The Lavender Fields farm in Valley Center grows certified organic French and English lavender for use in aromatherapy (and culinary therapy!) The Sequim-Dungeness Valley in Washington has seven lavender farms and hosts a Lavender Festival every July. or call (888)407-1489


Lavender Sugar

A great way to play with lavender flavor in tea, in baking recipes, or when making custards, crème brulee or sweetened whipped cream. Nice sprinkled on top of scones fresh from the oven.

½ cup dried culinary or organic lavender flowers
1 ½ cups granulated white sugar

Grind the flowers and sugar together in a blender or clean spice grinder. Let stand covered 24 hours. Strain through a sieve.

Frozen Lavender Lemonade with Fresh Mint

On a hot sunny day, make good use of your herb garden with this refreshing iced drink. Serves 6

1 cup sugar
2 ½ cups water
2 heaping tablespoons dried lavender (1/2 cup fresh)
¼ cup fresh mint leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried mint)
1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice, preferably very sour
3 cups crushed ice or ice cubes
3 teaspoons meringue powder or 1 egg white (optional)
6 mint leaves, plus more for garnish, if desired.

Boil water and sugar until dissolved. Add lavender and quarter-cup of mint leaves. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand at least 3 hours or overnight. Strain and chill. Add lemon juice.

In a powerful blender combine the lemon base, ice, mint and meringue powder or egg white. Blend on high until frothy and thick. Serve immediately.

Wine Jelly with Lavender

Here’s another recipe that combines lemon and lavender, but this one is a bit more sophisticated. Wine jellies are a proper old-fashioned treat, and with the use of liquid pectin, easy to make. How would I eat this? Let me count the ways: a dab with goat cheese or cream cheese on toasted brioche, a spoonful with pound cake or angel food cake, or straight from the jar.

1 ¾ cups sweet Riesling wine or rose wine
1 teaspoon dried lavender flowers or 1 tablespoon fresh flower buds
All the yellow peel from 1 large lemon, with as little white pith as possible
3 cups sugar
1 pouch (3 ounces) liquid pectin

Infuse the wine: Combine the wine, lavender flowers, sugar and lemon peel, and gently heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat, cover and allow to infuse for at least 3 hours or overnight.. Line a sieve with a doubled piece of cheesecloth and strain.

Before beginning, read up on canning techniques and sterilize jars, rings and lids.

Make the jelly: Combine the infused wine and sugar in a large saucepan. Stir in the sugar and stir over gentle heat until the sugar is dissolved. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Add the pectin all at once and allow to boil without stirring for exactly one minute. Remove from heat, let stand five minutes, and remove any foam. Ladle into sterilized jars and top with sterilized lids and rings. Let stand until the lids seal. (Any jars that fail to seal must be refrigerated and used within one week.)

Use within six months.

Lavender Honey Ice Cream

Rich and creamy, with a haunting suggestion of lavender. I prefer to make this not too sweet, but you can add more honey if you like. It’s wonderful alone, or served melting atop a warm fruit cobbler. Makes about one quart.

2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup to ¾ cup honey
2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers
4 large egg yolks
¼ teaspoon real vanilla extract

Combine milk, cream, honey and lavender flowers in a 1-quart heavy saucepan, and heat gently until bubbles form around the edges, but do not boil. Meanwhile beat the egg yolks until creamy and light. Pour a quarter-cup of the hot milk onto the egg yolks and beat well, then add the rest of the milk slowly, whisking all the while. Return to heat and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the foam disappears and the custard thickens-again, do not allow to boil. Cool, then refrigerate overnight without straining. Next day, strain the cold mixture. Add the vanilla extract and freeze according to machine directions.

Grilled Lamb Leg with Herbes de Provence

This is a classic combination of powerful herbs. Make small quantities; any leftovers will keep for several months in a tightly sealed jar, away from heat and sunlight. Use on chicken, beef, lamb, goat cheese, olives, salad dressings or infused into extra-virgin olive oil.

For the Lamb Leg:

1 boned leg of lamb
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into long slivers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons crushed black peppercorns
2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons Herbes de Provence spice mix (recipe follows)

Herbes de Provence:

1 tablespoon dried organic (culinary) lavender
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 tablespoon dried tangerine peel,* ground to a powder
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon dried savory
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Use top-quality dried herbs. Combine in a bowl and mix well, then rub through a coarse sieve or pulse several times in a food processor

Preheat a grill to medium-hot. Remove netting from lamb leg and open out. Use a sharp knife to trim away excess fat and shiny silverskin from all sides of the lamb. Poke the lamb with the tip of the knife, making one-inch holes inside and out, and insert a sliver of garlic into each hole. Brush the lamb with the olive oil inside and out. Sprinkle all over with the salt, pepper and 3 or 4 tablespoons of the herbes de Provence mix. Rub the seasonings into the meat. Let stand 20 minutes.

Open out the lamb leg and grill the lamb on all sides over the fire, then push coals to one side (or turn off one side of grill and reduce heat to medium) Place lamb on cool side of grill, cover, and cook to desired doneness (125 degrees for rare, 140 degrees for medium.) Allow to rest 20 minutes before carving.

*Optional; available at Asian supermarkets


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