Spring is the time to begin reviewing the wide choice of herb seasonings, fresh or dried, that will be on greenmarket stands or sprouting in back yards, from now until fall.
Aromatic or decorative, mild or pungent, unusual ingredients to give recipes an original twist range from amaranth to yarrow, not forgetting old friends such as chives, dill, parsley and mint.
Lavender is in the mint family, clearly in the aromatic group, grown more often as a fragrant flower than for cooking. However, the dried flower heads can add an intriguing element as in the following recipe for shortbread cookies.
In the 17th century, lavender and other flowers were ingredients in a conserve that was mixed with sugar to make a fragrant icing for cakes and cookies. Today lavender is included in the favorite savory herb blend known as herbes de Provence; and in North Africa, it's still part of a highly prized spice mix that also includes rose petals, orris root and saffron.
You can grow and dry lavender yourself, or find it at spice retailers and some florists. "If you buy lavender for cooking from an establishment that does not specialize in culinary herbs and spices, make sure the lavender does not have other oils, perfumes or non-edible ingredients added to enhance the aroma," Ian Hemphill writes, in "The Spice and Herb Bible: A Cook's Guide" (Robert Rose, $22.95, paperback).
Lavender Shortbread Cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers
1/8 teaspoon salt
In a medium mixing bowl, cream butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon extract. Add flour; mix until dough is smooth. If dough feels sticky add an additional 1/4 cup of flour. Dough should be soft, but not sticky. Chill 1 to 2 hours or until firm.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. On lightly floured surface, roll dough out about 1/4-inch thick. Cut out shapes with favorite cookie cutters and place on ungreased cookie sheet. (Dough may be re-rolled.) Bake 10 to 15 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned around the edges. Place on cooling rack. Cool completely, then decorate.
One day before baking: Mix 1 or 2 tablespoons lavender with 1 cup confectioners' sugar in a small plastic bag. Let stand for 1 day before baking cookies. In a bowl combine 1 cup confectioners' sugar-lavender combination, 2 teaspoons milk and 2 teaspoons light corn syrup. Stir well. Color with violet icing color if desired. Spread on cookies.
Makes 18 to 24 cookies.
Recipe courtesy of Wilton Enterprises.