Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lavender Lustfest

This past weekend was the annual Oregon Lavender Festival and Tour. Admittedly, I have been under the spell of lavender since my first trip to the Mediterranean when I first experienced the dazzling fields of lavender and the heady passion it evokes.

It’s a bit of paradaox - this zeal that lavender generates – because lavender is most known as a calming restorative. I have no idea how a cat feels when it’s under the influence of catnip, but I suspect it must be something similar to the affect that lavender has on me. One whiff of that fabulous ethereal scent - my senses sharpen and I’m lightheaded all at the same time. Bam! Right between the eyes, I am blissfully transported. So, why wouldn’t I want more of that?

Judging from the farms and cottage industries that are springing up all over the state, lavender is becoming big business in Oregon. There are about 25 sites – each catering to their particular locale and clientele. Who knew? Some are nursery based selling as many as 100 different varieties; then there are lavender u-picks, production tours, gift shops, workshops - even wedding and event venues for up to 500.

As in France, lavender and wine seem to make good neighborly partners in Oregon. Many of our lavender growers have discovered the financial benefits of this association and market themselves as such. Of course, artists are attracted to this environment, too; so by way of this mutual interest and support, there is a fascinating collective developing.

In my own yard, I have 3 different types, including a rogue yellow variety. With my last bumper crop I dried a good supply and have had fun experimenting with it. I made a truly memorable lavender hazelnut shortbread; and it turns out that lavender and chocolate create quite a symbiotic combination, so of course, lavender brownies are essential for my chocolate loving friends.

I’ve tinkered with lavender syrup – and keep a bottle stashed in the fridge to drizzle over desserts and flavor drinks. I discovered lavender and mint are lively partners and perfect in a summer cooler with a muddle of mint, a shot of lavender syrup, and a spritz of lemon scented sparkling water.

Lavender-Mint Spritzer

2 sprigs fresh mint
1-2 Tbsp. lavender syrup, or to taste ( follows)
Lemon Scented Sparkling Water
Wedge lemon or lime

In a tall glass, place on sprig mint in bottom which has been pressed between fingers. Add syrup and muddle with mint to release the mint flavor. Fill the glass with ice, add a wedge of lemon and squeeze over the ice. Pour lemon scented sparkling water to fill the glass and give a stir with spoon. Garnish with 2nd mint sprig. Serves 1 ~~

Lavender Syrup
Inspired by Herbal Palate by Oster and Gilbertie

1 cup lavender leaves or flowers
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
Infuse boiling water with herbs. Steep 30 minutes and strain. Return infusion to pan; add sugar and boil 10 minutes. Cool and store in refrigerator.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Finocchio Fantastico

Fennel is in season again which led me to recently playing with it in the kitchen. I have fond memories of using fennel prodigiously while cooking for the Petrarca family. They were extremely proud of their heritage and the traditional Italian cuisine was an important part of their meals. On the weekends, they enjoyed entertaining extended family and friends - and the meal could go on for hours.
If the weather was conducive, we would often have brunch or dinner at one large table spread outside on the terrace in the cooling shade of the enormous elm trees. As the day wore on, sometimes Tom Petrarca would get into the mood, pull out his accordion, and play a bit. It wouldn’t take long before he’d break into song, and soon everyone would be singing along.

Fennel was a major part of these family meals. The wine would flow, and dessert could wind on while espresso was served along with dessert wines and liqueurs. We’d offer a selection of specialty desserts, and trays of cookies and sweets would be passed. Then, amidst plenty of oohs and ahs, their beloved fennel would be set in the center of the table with a sampling of specialty cheeses – plus assorted nuts, with picks and crackers for casual shelling.

It’s no wonder fennel makes me smile.  Besides the obvious snacking benefits, its bright licorice flavor is especially wonderful raw in salads and salsas. However, on this day I wanted to create a tomato sauce richly laced with vegetables and complemented with some spicy meatballs - and fennel was the object of my intentions.

I wasn’t disappointed either. The sweetness of the fennel and carrot was the perfect balance to the acid of the tomatoes.  The licorice flavor was slightly muted, even though I elected to not overcook the sauce. Fortunately, I added fennel seed to the meatball mixture, which provided the perfect balance in this duet. I also used my convection oven to finish the meatballs, and wondered why I hadn’t thought of this sooner. They browned evenly and cooked in the amount of time that it took to prepare the sauce and simmer it briefly. At this point, I set it all aside and allowed it to cool.

When I was ready to start dinner, I heated the sauce, added the meatballs and simmered the sauce for about 20 minutes; just enough to infuse the sauce and cook the meatballs thoroughly. The finished sauce had a balanced spiciness and a lovely texture - and the carrots and fennel retained their slight al dente quality. Served with linguine and a shave of Parmesan: fantastico!

Tomato and Fennel Sauce with Meatballs and Pasta

24 oz. Meatballs (see below), browned well
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and chopped
1 whole carrot, peeled, chopped
2 teaspoons mixed dried herbs, savory, oregano, sage
2 - 14 oz cans tomatoes chopped, in puree
1 - 8 oz can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shaved
1 pound linguine, cooked al dente and drained well

24 ounces lean ground beef
1/2 onion minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 slices day-old bread, soaked in water, squeezed dry
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees: use convection if available. Line baking sheet with foil, drizzle with olive oil.

Combine meatball ingredients with hands and form into approx. 1" balls and place on baking sheet, roll them in olive oil and bake in oven for about 10 minutes. When they begin to brown turn the meatballs and bake for additional 10 minutes or until browned on all sides. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Meanwhile in large pot, heat the oil and saute the onion and garlic until aromatic. Trim the fennel root and leaves, remove the tough outer portion, and chop like celery. Add the fennel and carrot and cook for 4-5 minutes stirring occasionally, until vegetable begin to soften, adding the herbs as they cook. Add the tomatoes and sauce, stir well, simmer 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat.

When ready to serve, reheat the tomato sauce and add the meatballs; simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir in fresh herbs and simmer briefly. Serve with pasta and fresh Parmesan cheese. Serves 4 ~~


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