It’s that time again gang. I noticed it had been awhile since I did an Herb Series installment, and this time around I’m going to talk about one that doesn’t get a whole lot of love. Having the appearance and texture of something you just raked up in your back yard, bay leaves sometimes get a bit of a bad rap. But I’m going to talk about some of the good reasons why you should add (and then remove) bay to your cooking. So let’s get to it…
Like most herbs, there are several varieties of bay. The leaves that we use are the dried version of the product of the Bay Laurel tree, which is the most common. There are other popular bay trees, like the California and Indian Bay, and several other types that enjoy popularity in their specific area of the world. The leaves can be used both dry and fresh. although the fresh variety produce a much more pungent flavor and are more difficult to come by. It was much more popular in ancient times than today; know those laurel crowns that they used to award people in Greek art and literature? Yep, those were bay leaves in that crown. Both the Greeks and the Romans believed they had healing powers of magical proportions, so no wonder they were symbolic of the elite.
So I think most people associate bay leaves with a nearly unpalatable seasoning . We’ve probably all had that moment when dining on a stew or some roasted vegetables and accidentally “crunched” into a dry, flaky bay leaf that tasted like cardboard’flavored potato chips. Well put that out of your mind, because here’s the lowdown; they have an amazing fresh, almost floral fragrance, add a similar flavor to soups, stews, meats and vegetables, and hey guess what, they’re good for you, too. Not only does it aid in solving digestive issues, the oil extracted from the leaves can also help with respiratory concerns. Think of it as nature’s own Vick’s Vapor Rub.
So what about the culinary aspect of bay? I mean, that’s what its primary use is. And it is true that you should remove the leaves at the end of the cook time of any dish. Because pretty much no matter how long you cook it, you’re never going to get those tough little leaves to be palatable. And yes, there have been reported cases of people suffering from intestinal perforation from eating whole leaves. But you shouldn’t let it stop you from using this extremely hearty little leaf in your cooking. It brings a unique flavor and fragrance to roasted meats and vegetables, and various stews and soups, like this delicious number from Bon Appetit. In my little corner of the world, winter is trying its best to hang on, and this creamy mushroom soup is just the thing to strike back at a frosty day. Essentially, bay leaf is like a very talented backup singer; it makes a main ingredient shine, and you really only notice it if its not there. I personally have a recipe for Creole Shrimp that calls for bay leaf, and I refuse to make the dish without it. That may sound a bit extreme, but even with all the other flavors going on in the pan, it just doesn’t taste the same without the bay leaf. I think it falls into the same category as nutmeg, in that it makes people ask, “What is that extra something in this dish?”
I hope this gave you a little bit of interesting insight into an element of cooking that gets a bit overlooked in my opinion (I admit to doing it myself). So the next time to want to put an extra pop of flavor in a dish, try to remember the little green leaf that can make a difference. Happy eating!