MILLVILLE, Cache County — When you drive up the gravel road to Mike and Peggy Nelson's farmhouse in Cache Valley, you are greeted with plots of spiky purple blossoms and a sweet, spicy-soap fragrance.
This is the lavender of Purple Apple Farm.
"The smell just makes you happy," said Peggy Nelson.
Many Utahns have lavender growing in their yards for its beauty and fragrance but never think of using it in food.
However, Nelson, an accomplished home cook, adds a flavor note to savory dishes such as pork tenderloin, goat cheese, salmon and roasted potatoes. She also uses it to perk up sweets, such as lemonade, cookies and cakes.
"It's really an adventure to cook with lavender; you just have to try it and experiment with it," she said.
She became acquainted with lavender while her family lived in Paris for four years. She took French culinary classes at the Ritz Carlton in Paris and an intensive course taught by a Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School graduate.
Lavender is one of the seasonings in herbes de Provence, a combination of herbs used in French cooking.
After the Paris years, three years ago the Nelsons moved to the Millville farm previously owned by Mike's family. They began raising lavender and apples using organic methods. They currently have about 800 lavender plants. Some of the 100-plus apple trees were planted by Mike Nelson's great-grandparents, John and Hanna Nelson.
Peggy Nelson has attended lavender festivals and learned more about raising it and cooking with it. She will sell her lavender at farmers markets, and she shares her expertise on her blog, thepurpleapple-lavender.blogspot.com.
"It takes a lot of years to figure out what grows in what area," she said. "I lost 16 percent of my French lavender last year. But the English lavender is quite hardy."
About 300 of her plants are English lavender, which is good for culinary purposes; and about 500 are the Grosso variety, which are better for sachets, soaps and oils. "Think of it this way: It would taste 'grosso' if you cooked with it," she said.
English lavender doesn't contain as much camphor, which gives French lavender a medicinal taste, she said.
"I would guess that in Utah, 90 percent of what people have in their yards is English lavender," she said. "So as long as they don't have chemicals or pesticides sprayed on it, they can use it to cook with."
But restraint is important; too much gives your dish a bitter or perfume taste.
"The trick to using lavender is to use just enough that people say, 'Ooh, what's that interesting flavor in your dish?' " she said. "People can get carried away and use too much. I've had lavender ice cream where I thought I was eating soap."
Chef Michael Showers of the Goldener Hirsh Inn in Deer Valley has the same advice for using lavender. He makes a strawberry shortcake with a hint of lavender and lime zest in the whipped cream. It's also part of the herbes de Provence seasoning for escargot, which is on the restaurant's dinner menu.
"You have to be very stingy with lavender," he said. "In any recipe, it becomes the dominant ingredient."
According to "The Spice and Herb Bible: A Cook's Guide," by Ian Hemphill, lavender is used in recipes from Europe to the north of Africa.
How do you describe the flavor of lavender? It's piney and fragrant, and somewhat similar to rosemary.
Beehive Artisan Cheese of Uintah's award-winning Barely Buzzed Lavender Cheddar is rubbed with lavender and coffee.
For many Utahns, their introduction to lavender comes while driving I-15 between Santaquin and Mona. The Young Living Farms is spread across 1,600 acres, much of it covered with organic lavender. But here, the lavender is processed into essential oils for therapeutic purposes rather than culinary use. Young Living Essential Oils, headquartered in Salt Lake City, is the world's leading grower, distiller and provider of pure essential oils.
Some studies have reported that lavender essential oil may help with insomnia, alopecia (hair loss), anxiety and postoperative pain.
In folklore, pillows were filled with lavender flowers to help restless people fall sleep.
In ancient times, lavender was used for mummification and perfume. The Greeks and the Romans bathed in lavender-scented water. The herb takes its name from the Latin word, "lavare," meaning "to wash."
Some general ideas for using lavender:
Infusions: Steep 2 tablespoons of buds per cup of boiling liquid for 30 minutes, and then strain. Infused liquids can be mixed into lemonade, tea, ice cream, creme brulee or cheesecake. Nelson has used infused water as a refreshing spritzer when giving facials.
When making lavender lemonade, you can add color with a few strawberries or blueberries.
Lavender sugar: Stir in 11/2 teaspoons dried lavender flowers into 41/2 cups of superfine sugar. Store in an airtight container for at least a month.
Seasoning: You can use dried lavender flowers as you would rosemary on any meat, casserole, soup or bread recipe, said Nelson. Chop the dried herb for a finer texture, and rub it with garlic, salt and pepper on meat or poultry before grilling.
One of her favorite recipes is mint-and-lavender rubbed pork tenderloin, The slices of roasted loin are layered with goat cheese and topped with lavender-infused apple jelly, resulting in a dish with complex sweet, savory, creamy and tangy notes.
As an accompaniment, Nelson tosses potatoes with salt, pepper, lavender and olive oil, and roasts them in the oven.
Another favorite recipe is Lavender Lemon Poundcake, with a lavender-laced cherry topping.
"Think of whatever you cook, and try putting a little lavender in it," said Nelson. "There's no right or wrong way."
Lavender Grilled Salmon
3 pounds salmon filet
4 tablespoons honey
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons lavender, crushed with mortar and pestle
¼ cup white wine (substitution: 3 tablespoons white grape juice and 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Place all ingredients, except salmon, in saucepan over moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wire whisk until ingredients are reduced by one-third, to create a sauce. Set aside about 1?3 cup of the sauce. When sauce has cooled slightly, brush part of the sauce on salmon, and continue to baste salmon while grilling or baking until salmon is flaky, about 10 minutes. Pour the reserved sauce over the salmon before serving.
— Peggy Nelson
CARAMELIZED CHERRY LAVENDER TOPPING
¼ cup butter
3 tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon culinary lavender
2 cups pitted cherries
A squeeze of lemon juice
Melt butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add brown sugar, lavender and lemon juice. Simmer until cherries are warm. Spoon over lemon lavender pound cake or ice cream. Makes 2 cups.
— Peggy Nelson
Lavender Pork Tenderloin
1 1/4 teaspoons dried lavender buds
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 medium-size pork tenderloin
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons virgin olive oil, divided
8 ounces apple jelly
6-ounce log chevre goat cheese
Mix 1 teaspoon lavender with mint. Rub the tenderloin with salt, pepper, a few teaspoons of the olive oil, and about two-thirds of the lavender/mint mixture. Roll chevre cheese in remaining lavender/mint mixture.
Heat remaining olive oil in an ovenproof sauté pan. Sear pork tenderloin until browned. Then roast in oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or to 155-160 degrees with a meat thermometer. Don't overcook.
Add remaining ¼ teaspoon lavender to apple jelly and warm the jelly over medium heat. Allow the jelly mixture to set for 20 minutes to infuse the flavors.
To serve, slice tenderloin into medallions about 1?3-inch thick. Layer a slice of ch?re between two pork medallions and top with the warm apple jelly. Serves 4-6.
— Peggy Nelson
LAVENDER DROP COOKIES
12 sprigs fresh lavender
½ cup butter
½ cup granulated sugar
Grated rind (zest) of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Pinch of salt
2 cups flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheet. Peel off lavender florets from stem. Cream butter and sugar. Add lemon zest, juice and vanilla. Beat in eggs. Blend in salt flour, baking powder and lavender flowers. Dough will be sticky. Drop by teaspoon onto the cookie sheet. Top with hazelnuts. Bake 15 minutes, or until light golden.
— Avonlea West Island Retreat, British Columbia
Honey Lavender Ice Cream
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half cream
2/3 cup mild honey
2 tablespoons dried edible lavender flowers
2 large eggs
1/8 teaspoon salt
Bring cream, half-and-half, honey and lavender just to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, then remove pan from heat. Let steep, covered, 30 minutes.
Pour cream mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and discard lavender. Clean saucepan; return mixture to cleaned pan, and heat over moderate heat.
Whisk together eggs and salt in a large bowl, then add 1 cup hot cream mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Pour into remaining hot cream mixture in saucepan, and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until thick enough to coat back of spoon and registers 170-175 degrees on thermometer, about five minutes. Do not let boil.
Pour custard through sieve into cleaned bowl and cool completely, stirring occasionally. Chill, covered, until cold, at least three hours. Freeze custard in ice-cream maker according to machine directions. Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden.
— Peggy Nelson
WHITE CHOCOLATE LAVENDER DROPS
1 12-ounce bag of white chocolate chunks
½ cup coarsely chopped macadamia nuts
½ teaspoon ground culinary lavender (use a mortar and pestle to grind, or a clean coffee grinder)
½ teaspoon whole culinary lavender buds
Microwave chocolate in a glass bowl for two minutes. Stir the semi-melted chocolate until smooth. Add all other ingredients, and continue stirring until combined. Line a cookie sheet with wax paper or parchment. Use a teaspoon to dollop the mixture onto the paper. Refrigerate for 15 minutes or until hard. Arrange on a plate or candy dish. Makes 36 drops.
— Peggy Nelson
1 1/2 cup sugar
5 cups water, divided
12 lavender stems, or about 1/4 cup of dried lavender
2 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, strained
Lavender sprigs and lemon slices for garnish
Place the sugar and 2 1/2 cups water in a medium saucepan, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Add the lavender, cover, and remove from heat. Let the mixture stand for at least 20 minutes and up to several hours.
Strain the mixture, discarding the lavender blossoms. Pour into a glass pitcher. Add the lemon juice and another 2 1/2 cups of water. Stir well. Taste and add more sugar, water or lemon as desired. Serve in pretty glasses over ice.
EASY LAVENDER LEMONADE
1/4 cup dried lavender
1 cup boiling water
1 12-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate
1 quart cold water
Cover lavender with boiling water. Let steep for 20 minutes. Combine lavender infusion with frozen concentrate. Add 1 quart cold water, stir and chill.
Options: To make sparkling lemonade, add 1 quart ginger ale, 7Up or other similar drinks in place of cold water.
— Peggy Nelson
Herbes De Provence
4 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried marjoram
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon tarragon
2/3 teaspoon lavender flowers
½ teaspoon celery seeds
1 crushed bay leaf
Mix together. Use it as you would mixed herbs for meats, poultry, soups or casseroles.
— "The Spice and Herb Bible: A Cook's Guide," by Ian Hemphill