Lavender buds can be used in the kitchen in many amazing ways. Add them to salad dressings, steep them in honey, mix them with spices to make a seasoning rub for salmon and lamb, use in breads and cookies ― you can even add them to chocolate desserts.
The secret is to use lavender discreetly, as you would the right amount of perfume. You want to contribute an elusive, light, floral note that makes food taste distinctively different, but subtly so.
Too much lavender can overwhelm other flavors and come off tasting like cheap cologne. Acceptance of lavender in cuisine varies, so start with the minimum, then taste before adding more.
Sharon Shipley, author of The Lavender Cookbook (Running Press, 2004; $17) and owner of Mon Chéri Cooking School and Caterers in Sunnyvale, California (408/736-0892), prefers the 'Provence' variety for its pure, intense flavor. Other kinds tend to be more subtle; some have off tastes.
To intensify flavor, Shipley grinds dried lavender buds in a spice mill (you can also use a blender) to release the plant's essential oil. She uses lavender effectively in the berry crisp pictured above right.
Be sure to cook only with pesticide-free lavenders grown for culinary use. You may find them in the spice section of specialty food stores, spice stores, and some supermarkets; the Spice Hunter sells French culinary lavender in supermarkets (visit www.spicehunter.com for a list of retailers). We used lavender from Rancho Alegre in Pescadero, California ( www.ranchoalegre-lavender.com or 877/446-3567).