Yes, I confess, I am in love with lavender.
I kept dreaming of lavender -- fields of purple dancing to the rhythm of the wind; I dreamt of lavender scented scones drizzled with honey from bees that busied themselves on my beloved; lavender sachets dangling in the bath soothing more than my body; bundles of lavender drying overhead in some dark farmhouse kitchen.
When a friend rented a house in a small town high in the hills north of Grasse and insisted I come I realized it was my time to a confront these nocturnal visions. Upon arriving in the region of Provence my dear lavender did not let me down it was everywhere -- lining the highways; filling front gardens; adorning planters along the streets. I was in lavender bliss. Strangely, guiltily though, while my admiration for this fragrant flower never failed I found my eyes and heart begin to stray. I remember the first adulterous flutter came at the Saturday market, in the town of St. Cezaire, when a sweet pungent peach begged for my kiss. So strong was its aroma and supple its flesh I took it right there in the middle of the square. Having no shame I eat this peach passionately laughing to myself as its juices ran down my chin and arm. I walked home savoring that embrace licking my fingers and hand just to keep the memory alive. Yet all the while, in the back of my mind I was plotting. For in my sac filled with precious offerings was the petite cousin to my peach -- an apricot.
I was confused and distraught, feeling I was abandoning my revered lavender, and this, my first day.
Along the road I met a group of green, velvety-coated nuts named almonds dangling overhead. They were such an inviting sight with their delicate hidden flesh so subtly sweet I had to rescue them from their precarious perch. Upon my arrival home I laid them on a bed of ruby red rose petals from the garden and wished them a goodnight. Tomorrow I will figure out how to deal with this total sensory overload I was experiencing. Then in my dreams it came to me -- I must make a ratatouille. Being here in Provence I understood this regional dish more intimately than ever. For how could any cook choose one succulent vegetable or fruit over another? The only choice was but by marrying them all. That following day I made a heart felt stew strewn with tender vegetables, studded with freshly toasted almonds and scented elegantly with lavender.
With a satisfied sigh I lifted my last morsel to my mouth, recognizing I was living my dream.
Ratatouille – yields 6 to 8 servings
1 small eggplant (about 1/2 pound)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion – diced 1/2-inch cubes
2 cloves garlic (or 8 garlic scapes) – peeled and chopped
1 small carrot – diced 1/2-inch cubes
1 bulb fennel - diced 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves – chopped
2 teaspoons lavender buds
1/4-cup silvered almonds
1 cup pureed tomatoes
1 small zucchini - diced 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup fresh shelling peas (approx. 3/4 pound)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Peel the eggplant, and then dice into 1/2-inch cubes. Place in a colander and toss with 2 teaspoons of salt. Allow the eggplant to sit for 20 to 30 minutes and sweat. This will grid it of some of its bitter taste. Wash the eggplant well, and pat dry with a clean towel.
Heat a 10-inch skillet over a medium high heat and add the oil and onions. Cook the onions until they brown, bout 5 minutes. Then mix in the garlic, carrot, fennel, eggplant, thyme, lavender and almonds; and toss to coat well. Pour over the tomato puree, and lower the heat to low and cook, covered, for 20 minutes. Then add the zucchini and peas. Season with salt and pepper, and cook another 5 minutes.
Lavender Ricotta Cake - yields 8 servings
for the crust
20 Amoretti cookies (Italian hard almond cookies)
1/4 cup finely ground almonds
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
2 egg whites - lightly beaten
1 pound ricotta cheese
3 whole eggs - beaten
1 teaspoon lavender
1/4 cup honey
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor fitted with a steel blade grind the cookies to a fine meal. Transfer the ground cookies to a work bowl and mix in the ground almonds, shredded coconut and lightly beaten egg whites. Work the mixture together so when pressed it will hold together. Press the crust mixture into an eight inch springform cake pan making sure to come just slightly up the sides of the pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 7 minutes, or until the crust is set and slightly golden. Remove from the oven and cool completely.
Prepare the filling, thoroughly mixing together the ricotta, whole eggs, lavender and honey.
Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees.
Pour the ricotta mixture into the prepared crust and place in the middle rack of the oven. Cook the cake for 25 to 30 minutes or until set. Shut off the oven and let the cake cool in the oven for about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the cake to cool completely sitting on a cooling rack. Carefully remove the springform and serve this cake with fresh seasonal berries and lavender sprigs.