Lavender at the lab

If Stanford isn’t running a bustling underground soap and sachet business, it should be.

The grounds near the med school have stands of lavender large enough to comfortably carpet my entire house (ok, granted my house is the size of some people’s bedrooms, but that is not the point.  The point is that there’s a lot of lavender).

A mere sampling of all the lavender that populates our section of campus. It's listed as Lavandula "var," which seems only fair since apparently fighting over Lavandula species and subspecies names is a popular botanical pastime.

This hardworking Mediterranean mountain native is probably most famous for its use in bath oils, soaps, and fragrances (its name, after all, comes from the Latin lavare: “to wash”), but I like it best as a food flavoring—it’s great with chicken (see recipe, below), but also chocolate and other dessert items.

A closer look at the flower spikes

Extra nitty gritty:

The fragrance we associate with lavender in its essential oil comes from several compounds, mainly terpenes, but the biggest single component is probably linalool.  Linalool is made by a diverse array of sweet-smelling plants, including many others of the mint family to which Lavandula belongs.

linalool by any other name woud almost certainly still smell as sweet

Lately, the commercial and therapeutic utility of lavender has driven a more molecular approach to its cultivation, with scientists characterizing the expression levels of genes contributing to the biosysnthesis of linalool and other terpenes.  By studying how Lavandula angustifolia regulates production of its essential oil normally, new cultivars could be developed with greater essential oil output, and even more of a fragrant pop.

Interested in the details?  Here’s the reference:

Lane A, Boecklemann A, Woronuk GN, Sarker L, Mahmoud SS.  A genomics resource for investigating regulation of essential oil production in Lavandula angustifolia. Planta. 2010 Mar;231(4):835-45.

 And you can eat it!

So here’s my favorite lavender recipe, does anyone have a favorite of their own? Post a comment or a link–I’d love more!

Lavender chicken recipe:

4 Boneless Chicken Breasts

3 Tbsp Butter

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 large shallot, chopped

3-4 spikes lavender flowers (plus a few more for garnish)

1/2 cup pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc (we avoid chardonnay for cooking because the oak taste becomes too strong when the wine reduces)

1 tsp. Fines Herbes ( or a mix of marjoram, thyme, rosemary and a bay leaf or two works well)

2 Tbsp honey (clover or wildflower. Don’t use orange blossom; it turns out yucky)

juice of 1/2 lemon

Salt, pepper

Pat the chicken dry and rub with 1-2 Tbsp butter (or olive oil if that’s more your style), then sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Place so they fit fairly snugly in a baking dish.

Saute the garlic and shallot together in the remaining butter just until the shallot turns soft.  Then add wine, lavender, herbs, honey, and lemon juice and bring to a simmer.  Let simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced—about 5-10 minutes.  Slosh the resulting sauce over the chicken breasts and cook at 375 for 45-50 minutes, basting occasionally toward the end.  If needed, broil 4-5 minutes to brown chicken nicely.

Garnish with lavender and serve with the rest of the wine.  A big chunk of crusty bread is handy for sopping up the extra sauce.

Lavender chicken, my favorite brassicate, fresh-baked bread and a generous glass of sauvignon blanc. Dinner!

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