Romantic lavender fields aren't only in Provence. California has its fair share of them. From Healdsburg to Ojai, lavender plants thrive in our Mediterranean climate. During blooming season in May and June, the heady scent of fresh-cut lavender wafts through farmers' markets, tempting shoppers to buy a bundle or two.
The flowers may be tiny but they contain a substantial amount of essential oils, which are what give the Lavandula angustifolia plant such a powerful aroma. Lavender is harvested on a large scale for these perfumed oils, many of which are included in bath products. In fact, the flower takes its name from "lavare" -- the Latin verb "to wash" -- and was used by ancient Romans to perfume themselves and their baths. Today, the calming, woody, citrusy scent of a bedside bouquet of lavender flowers can help lull us to sleep.
When I see lavender for sale at the market, I'm always tempted to use the flowers in the kitchen, but I'm also a little wary. I've tasted lavender shortbread cookies, lavender ice cream, and lavender crème brûlée, and in each dish the flower's aroma was regrettably overpowering. The worst offenders reminded me of my grandmother's sock drawer -- not exactly best for whetting one's appetite. But lavender is a member of the mint family, along with basil, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme, and as such it has the potential to add appealing flavor to many dishes. While cooking with the strong-smelling flower, I learned two key lessons: use only a very small quantity of lavender and pair it with other intense flavors. Garlic, black olives, and fresh rosemary are all excellent partners that can stand up to lavender's oomph.
I tried using a pinch of lavender flowers in a fresh version of herbes de Provence, the iconic French seasoning made with mixed dried herbs. Traditionally, this blend calls for savory, fennel, thyme, basil, and rosemary. In the 1970s, spice wholesalers added lavender into the mix to appeal to American consumers, who associated the pale violet flowers with Provence. Well, call me a tourist, but I think lavender sounds fantastic in herbes de Provence. I rubbed the fresh herbs into a leg of lamb, roasted the meat in the oven, and found that the lavender flowers had contributed a subtle but enticing aroma. Rather than take over, they quietly combined with the other resinous herbs and the pungent bite of garlic. All that this potent flower needs is equally gregarious culinary companions.
Roast Leg of Lamb with Fresh Herbes de Provence
Ask your butcher for one half leg of lamb (preferably the thicker sirloin end). Or, roast the entire leg of lamb, doubling the recipe to serve 10. It's worth hunting down all of the fresh herbs for the brightness that they add. Don't worry if you can't find a few of them -- simply substitute an equal amount of another fresh herb that you like.
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, plus 8 whole sprigs
1½ tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup fennel fronds, coarsely chopped
2 fresh bay leaves, coarsely chopped
1½ teaspoons lavender flowers, plus 4 whole sprigs
10 fresh sage leaves
½ leg of lamb, sirloin end, bone-in, about 3 pounds
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic and 1 tablespoon salt to a smooth paste. Add the rosemary leaves, oregano, thyme, fennel, bay, lavender, and sage to the mortar. Continue pounding the mixture until most of the leaves are smashed and broken up into small pieces. Spread the fresh herb mixture all over the leg of lamb, and sprinkle the meat with another teaspoon of salt and lots of black pepper. Cover, and refrigerate for two days (or at least overnight, if you're in a pinch.)
Two hours or so before you plan to roast the lamb, remove it from the fridge so that it can warm to room temperature. Brush away any large herb pieces, reserving them.
Preheat the oven to 325ºF.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat for several minutes. Swirl in the olive oil, and then carefully place the lamb, fatty-side down, into the skillet. Sear all sides until deeply golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes total cooking time.
Lay the rosemary and lavender sprigs in the bottom of a roasting pan that is just larger than the meat, and then set the browned meat on top of the sprigs. Pour any oil and rendered fat from the skillet over the meat. Place the butter and reserved herbs on top of the meat. Roast the lamb until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the leg reads 128ºF (medium-rare), about one hour.
Transfer the lamb to a platter, cover it with a piece of tented foil, and let the meat rest for 15 minutes.
Slice the meat into ¼-inch-thick pieces. Serve them with any juices that accumulated while the lamb rested.