It’s Almost Lavender Time

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I just discovered the most engaging, beautiful cookbook: “The Art of Cooking with Lavender” by Nancy Baggett (80 recipes with 70 photos). This book will teach you how to get started cooking with lavender, how to choose it, how to harvest and dry it. It offers a range of recipes from appetizers, snacks and beverages to soups, salads, and sides, meat, poultry, and seafood, and baked goods and desserts. You’ll find lots of hints and tips, too.

If you think aromatic herbs make dull dishes shine, wait until you start cooking with lavender.  It is a terrific culinary journey. Just make sure you use fresh or dried flower heads or buds of the sweeter, more food-friendly true or common (English) lavenders, Lavandula angustifolia.

Nancy Baggett is an award-winning cookbook author, food writer, and avid hobbyist gardener with nearly 20 cookbooks and dozens of food articles to her credit. You can learn more about her at www.nancyslavenderplace.com.

To purchase fresh lavender, take a day trip to Deepcreek Lavender Farm in Accident, Maryland (240.608.8282); Soleado Lavender Farm in Dickerson, Maryland (301.922.5964); or Calico Fields Lavender in Millington, Maryland (410.928.3505).   Call first for hours and days.

Zesty, Hearty Mediterranean-Style Vegetable Soup

It’s sometimes said that lavender is a classic in Provencal cooking, but just a little research reveals that this isn’t true. While this herb has grown wild in the Mediterranean for centuries, until the last half century it rarely appeared in recipes, and then usually only in medical concoctions, tisanes and lozenges.

However, in the last several decades cooks have begun using lavender as an ingredient, sometimes standing alone, sometimes intermingled with several other pungent Mediterranean herbs. In fact, it’s so good paired with oregano and thyme that I’ve created an herb blend of the three, my Mediterranean Lavender-Herb Blend, that I keep in my spice rack and routinely use in place of commercial Italian seasoning mix—just grind 1 teaspoon dried lavender buds fine with a mini-chopper, or using a mortar and pestle. Then add it, along with 1 teaspoon each dried thyme and oregano leaves into the soup.

5 cups canned chicken broth or vegetable broth, preferably reduced-sodium

1/2 cup each coarsely chopped onion and chopped celery

1/2 cup each thinly sliced (crosswise) fresh carrots and 1-inch cut green bean pieces

1/4 cup each uncooked red lentils and quick-cooking brown rice

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or trimmed and sliced green onions

1 tablespoon Mediterranean Lavender-Herb Blend

1 to 3 pinches hot red pepper flakes, to taste

1 14- to 15-ounce can peeled, diced, chopped tomatoes, including juice

1 cup rinsed and drained canned cannellini beans, optional

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves, preferably flat-leafed, plus more for garnish

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Stir together the broth, onion, celery, carrots, green beans, lentils, rice, chives, lavender-herb blend and hot pepper flakes in a 3-quart or similar pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the pot boils. Reduce the heat so the soup barely simmers. Cover and cook for 18 to 20 minutes, until the lentils and vegetables are barely tender.

Stir in the tomatoes, beans (if using) and the parsley. Bring to a gentle boil and cook 5 minutes longer. If the soup is very thick, thin it with water as desired. Taste and add more salt, if desired. Serve in soup plates, garnished with more fresh parsley and black pepper, if desired.  The soup may also be covered, refrigerated and stored for up to 4 days, then reheated over low heat, stirring occasionally. Makes 5 or 6 main-dish servings.

Super Fudgy Raspberry-Lavender Brownies

Brownies are one of America’s best baking inventions. They first turned up, without any fanfare, in the 1906 edition of Fannie Farmer’s “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.”  No, Mrs. Farmer’s brownies did not contain lavender.  But they were rich, dark and full of chocolate flavor, so she got us off to a very good start!

These are in Mrs. Farmer’s classic brownie style with a surprising and enticing taste twist provided by raspberry jam and lavender.

Tip: The baking time depends greatly on the pan used, so check frequently for signs of doneness. In a heavy, dull metal pan that absorbs and holds heat readily, the brownies may be done in only about 20 minutes. But in a glass or shiny metal pan they may take up to 8 minutes longer. Use the toothpick test to tell.

1/4 cup raspberry jam or preserves combined with 3 tablespoons water

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks

2 tablespoons dried culinary lavender buds

1 2/3 cups all-purpose white flour

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups granulated sugar

11 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, broken up or coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon raspberry extract or homemade lavender extract, optional

4 large eggs, at room temperature

Heat the jam-water mixture and butter almost to boiling in a small saucepan, then set aside. Stir in the lavender buds and let stand while readying the other ingredients. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9×13-inch baking pan with heavy aluminum foil; let it overhang the narrow ends. Grease or coat the foil with nonstick spray or cooking oil. In a medium bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, cocoa powder and salt; set aside.

Strain the butter mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a large saucepan; press down to force through as much of the mixture as possible.  Stir the sugar into the saucepan. Heat, stirring, just until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot but not boiling; don’t worry if it looks curdled or oily. Remove it from the heat. Add the chocolate, stirring until completely melted. Set aside until cooled to just slightly warm (if the mixture is hot, the eggs may curdle when added). Stir the vanilla and raspberry or lavender extract (if using) into the pan. Vigorously stir in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the dry ingredients just until the batter is evenly blended. Turn out the batter into the baking pan, spreading to the edges.

Bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes, then begin frequently testing for doneness: When the center top is barely firm when tapped and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean except for the bottom 1/8-inch (which will look wet), the brownies are done. Transfer the pan to a wire rack. Let stand until cooled to warm, about 20 minutes. Then, for easiest cutting, refrigerate until chilled.

Using the overhanging foil as handles, carefully transfer the brownie slab to a cutting board. If desired, trim away the uneven edges using a large, sharp knife. Cutting through the foil, cut the slab in half crosswise. Carefully peel off and discard the foil from the bottoms. Cut each brownie slab into 2 1/8 by 2 1/4-inch bars, or as desired; remember they are very rich. Wipe the knife clean with damp paper towels between cuts.  Stored airtight, the brownies will keep well for 2 or 3 days. They also freeze well for up to a month. If freezing, leave the brownie slab whole, then cut into portions when partially thawed. Makes 32  2 1/8 by 2 1/4-inch bars.

Editor’s Note: For more edible delights by Sheilah Kaufman, go to www.cookingwithsheilah.com.

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