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Cooking with Hill Country lavender: sweet and savory

Andrea Abel

Lavender, with its silvery-green spiky leaves and scented purple blossoms, has been prized for centuries for its medicinal properties, fragrance and culinary uses. And this weekend, the herb will be the star at the Blanco Lavender Festival. In Texas, you can find the herb, which is related to mint and originally from the Mediterranean, growing from Central Texas to the Panhandle. The Hill Country, in particular, is home to a number of farms where lavender in full bloom currently graces fields with a shock of color. From simple to sophisticated, lavender is popping up in everything from tea blends, lemonade and sweets to vinaigrettes, marinades and grill rubs.

Here are just a few places where you can find it:

Hill Country Lavender, Blanco: Owner Tasha Brieger creates her own blend that she markets as Herbs de Blanco. "We came up with our own mixture. You can put it on grilled fish and chicken. Actually, we've used it on pork or beef. Pretty much you can use Herbs de Blanco to season any kind of meat or vegetable," she says.

Becker Vineyards: The winemaker also puts on an annual lavender festival in early May. Lavender manager Chris Perrenoud, who oversees the vineyard's 5,000 lavender plants, says varieties such as "Provence," "Grosso" and "Royal Velvet" grow well in the Hill Country and are good for cooking. The vineyard sells a variety of lavender products including culinary lavender and herbes de Provence, as well as lip balm, sachets, soaps, eye pillows and room spray, available both at the vineyard's tasting room and online.

Rock House Bistro, Fredericksburg: Chef Asa Thornton created his version of a salade Niçoise with a lavender vinaigrette. It is fresh and perfect for a light summer lunch or dinner, yet toothsome enough to satisfy. Thornton's attention to detail elevates fresh, seasonal ingredients to sublime new levels.

Cabernet Grill, Fredericksburg: Chef/owner Ross Burtwell's Grilled Lavender Skewered Texas Shrimp With Becker Fumé Beurre Blanc and Fredericksburg Peach Pico is straightforward and will impress guests with its layers of flavor and presentation.

Want to play with lavender at home? You can find culinary lavender at Savory Spice Shop, the Herb Bar, Central Market and Whole Foods Market. Central Market has lavender stems in the fresh herb section, or you can get some from a neighbor's plant or go on an adventure to pick your own at a lavender farm.

Have fun experimenting with lavender's earthy floral qualities. Just remember that a little goes a long way, and the idea is to create a subtle essence instead of an overpowering perfume of flavor.

Lavender Cupcakes With Mascarpone Buttercream Frosting

If you want to save any for yourself, be sure to hide a few of these before setting the rest out.

Makes 15 Texas-size cupcakes or 24 regular cupcakes.

Cupcake:

11/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter

2 cups sugar

3 egg whites

2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

11/2 tsp. dried culinary lavender

3 cups cake flour

3/4 tsp. baking soda

11/2 tsp. baking powder

3/4 tsp. salt

11/2 cups buttermilk

Frosting:

2 cups (4 sticks) butter

2 cups confectioners' sugar

8 oz. mascarpone

4 Tbsp. heavy cream

2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Dried culinary lavender for sprinkling on top

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin cups with paper liners. Lightly crush lavender with a mortar and pestle or with fingers to release the essential oils.

Using a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl on medium speed about 3 to 4 minutes, until light and fluffy. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add the egg whites, vanilla and lavender and beat on medium speed for about 1 minute.

Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the batter and beat on medium speed until incorporated. Add half the buttermilk and beat on medium speed until incorporated. Continue adding the dry and wet ingredients alternately, scraping the bowl down and beating until incorporated after each addition. End with dry ingredients. Batter should be thick and glossy.

Spoon the batter evenly into the muffin cups no more than two-thirds full. Do not overfill. Bake 20-25 minutes on middle rack of oven or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool cupcakes completely before frosting.

For the frosting, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add mascarpone, cream and vanilla and lightly beat. Do not over-mix or mascarpone will curdle.

Spread cupcakes with a generous amount of frosting. Sprinkle with culinary lavender.

Refrigerate in an airtight container any cupcakes not eaten immediately.

— From Rebecca Rather, Rather Sweet Bakery, Fredericksburg

Lavender-Lemon Tea Cookies

These cookies, created by Leah Molina exclusively for Hill Country Lavender, make a perfect melt-in-your-mouth addition to afternoon tea or a lunchbox treat. Makes 18 to 24 cookies.

Cookies:

1 Tbsp. dried culinary lavender

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp. salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter (room temperature)

2/3 cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 Tbsp. milk

Sugar Icing:

1 cup powdered sugar

2 Tbsp. milk

2 tsp. light corn syrup

Set aside two ungreased baking sheets and a piping bag for icing cookies. Grind lavender flowers in a spice or coffee grinder. Sift ground lavender with flour and salt. Cream together butter, sugar, lemon zest, vanilla and milk.

Add lavender-flour mix and work until just combined (dough should not be sticky). Refrigerate dough 1 to 2 hours until firm.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roll dough to ¼-inch thickness. Using cookie cutter, cut 2- or 3-inch circles in dough and transfer to baking sheets. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until cookies are slightly brown on the edges. Transfer cookies to a cooling rack and let cool completely before icing them.

Mix the icing ingredients until well combined. Fill piping bag with icing and decorate cookies, as desired. (You can dip each cookie in icing rather than using a piping bag.)

— From Leah Molina for Hill Country Lavender

Grilled Lavender Skewered Texas Shrimp With Becker Fumé Beurre Blanc and Fredericksburg Peach Pico

In this recipe, bamboo or metal skewers can be substituted. Substitute papaya or mango in the pico if peaches aren't in season. I liked the pico so much, I quadrupled the recipe! Serves four.

2 lbs. Texas jumbo shrimp (16/20 size)

8 lavender stem skewers

1 cup Infused Wine (recipe below)

1 cup Fredericksburg Peach Pico (recipe below)

1 cup Becker Fumé Beurre Blanc (recipe below)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Peel and devein shrimp, leaving tails intact. Thread four or five shrimp on each skewer and season with kosher salt and black pepper. Prepare grill with oak wood and allow to burn down to a medium-high heat.

Place shrimp skewers on lightly oiled grill and cook for about two to three minutes on each side, basting frequently with infused wine. Remove shrimp from grill when they begin to curl slightly and turn opaque.

Serve shrimp hot topped with beurre blanc and peach pico.

Infused Wine

1 cup Becker Vineyards Fumé Blanc

1 tsp. lemon zest, minced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp. lavender

Place all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for a minute and remove from heat.

Fredericksburg Peach Pico

½ cup Fredericksburg peaches, peeled and diced

1 or 2 serrano chiles, minced

2 Tbsp. cilantro, minced

¼ cup red onions, diced

1 Tbsp. honey

1 Tbsp. lemon juice, fresh squeezed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients together. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and allow flavors to meld for 30 minutes.

Becker Fumé Beurre Blanc

1 ounce salad oil

3 Tbsp. shallots, minced

1 cup Becker Vineyards Fumé Blanc

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted whole butter, cut in cubes

2 Tbsp. garlic chives, minced

Tabasco, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small saucepan, over medium heat, sweat shallots with salad oil until translucent. (Do not allow shallots to color.) Add wine and allow mixture to simmer until reduced about 90 percent. Remove pan from heat and whip in cubes of butter until fully incorporated. Add chives to sauce and adjust seasoning accordingly with Tabasco, salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

— Ross Burtwell, Cabernet Grill, Fredericksburg

Salade Niçoise With Lavender Vinaigrette

Vinaigrette:

1/2 small anchovy fillet, rinsed well

Juice of 1 lemon (2 Tbsp.)

1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. dried culinary lavender flowers

1 egg yolk

1 oz. cold water

2/3 cup canola oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Salad:

1 lb. Yellowfin tuna fillet

4 eggs

1/2 lb. small potatoes

1/4 lb. young green beans

1/4 lb. grape or other tomatoes

1/3 cup Niçoise or Kalamata olives, pitted, rinsed well and patted dry

1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs such as Italian parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon.

1 Tbsp. fresh mint, chopped

8 cups salad greens

Extra virgin olive oil

Anchovy fillets for garnish (optional)

To make the dressing, blend anchovy, lemon juice and lavender flowers for 1 minute in a mini blender or with an immersion blender. Add yolks. Slowly pour in oil until it begins to thicken, then add water and rest of oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For the salad, allow tuna to come up to room temperature before grilling. Season with salt and pepper. Grill to desired doneness on a lightly oiled grill. Place eggs in a single layer in a pan. Add cold water to 1 inch above eggs. Bring to a boil. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let eggs sit in hot water 15 minutes for large eggs, 12 for medium, 18 for extra large. Drain and cool in a bowl of ice water. Peel and slice in halves.

Dice potatoes. Boil in salted water until tender. Blanch green beans and then shock in ice water to arrest cooking. Rinse olives well to remove excess salt.

Toss potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, olives, chopped herbs and mint with enough lavender vinaigrette to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange greens on a large platter; place vegetables tossed in vinaigrette on top of greens. Place egg halves around plate. Slice grilled tuna and fan out on top. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and more vinaigrette, if desired. Garnish with anchovy fillets, as desired.

— Asa Thornton, Rock House Bistro, Fredericksburg

Seventh Annual Blanco Lavender Festival

Friday through Sunday. Downtown Blanco and the surrounding area transform into Lavender Central. Start at the Blanco County Courthouse square for festival information and stroll through the lavender market to buy art, crafts and culinary products. Sample foods made with lavender and other local specialties at the food court or in local restaurants. Visit different Hill Country lavender farms to see fields in bloom or sample treats such as lavender lemonade or lavender ice cream. Sponsored by the Blanco Chamber of Commerce, 830-833-5101, info@blancochamber.com, blancolavenderfest.com .

Hill Country lavender farms

For a list of individual lavender farms that offer events, products and pick-your-own opportunities, visit www.texaslavenderassociation.org .