Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Bay Leaves

Monday, January 24, 2011

[left: California bay leaf; right: Turkish or Mediterranean bay leaf]

Bay leaves. We've all seen them. You've passed by them in the spice aisle at the supermarket, have seen them in the spice section in huge bulk bags if you visit import markets, and have most likely tasted it and not known it. It's used in French, Mediterranean, Asian, Middle Eastern, and American cooking from North America down to South America. If you've had chicken soup you've tasted it. If you've had gumbo or jambalaya, you've had it. Pasta sauces, braises, stews from Italy, parts of Eastern Europe, Spain, Turkey...you've had it. Indian food? Yup. Sometimes you'll see it show up in the dish and sometimes you won't. But chances are you've had it.

But what the hell is it?

Yes, it's a real leaf from like a tree and stuff. Specifically, from the laurel tree. Bay leaves are aka "laurel leaves." They are the same leaves you'd see made into a crown on Julius Caesar's head or other Roman emperors if you've noticed some of those statues or history books. Its history stretches far out from the kitchen and includes a place in important ancient ceremonies, accolades, medicinal purposes, healing potions, and even candles and incense. It's a very versatile leaf that wears many, many hats.

Laurel leaves have been cultivated for forever. Originating probably in Turkey, it quickly expanded west and took firm root along the Mediterranean, and reaching as far up as the coast of France and even Spain, and ventured north to Russia and east to Asia. It grows best in moderate climates, but can technically be still grown in colder ones (although not as successfully).

The ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to really incorporate the laurel as more than just a cooking spice. In fact, the laurel tree itself has been depicted by these cultures as a symbol of honor, a symbol found often on coins, pottery, drawings, and various other artistic representations. Laurel leaves were picked off the tree and fastened into a crown that was worn by emperors as a symbol of honorable nobility. They were given as crowns of glory to the first Olympians on Mt. Olympus in ancient Greece.

The ancients also used bay leaf for medicinal properties. The naturally occurring acid in the leaves and flowers are powerful attackers of fungi and bacteria, and were used steeped in teas or ground into powders for potions to help aid digestive issues, ulcers, and bacterial infections. So powerful is the laurel leaf, high quantities can actually induce miscarriages, so ancient medicine women would use it as a means to offer an  abortion to ancient prostitutes and noble women who secretly did not want to get pregnant. Laurel leaf also has anti-oxidant properties and is an anti-inflammatory, and has been used by cultures to treat arthritis, rheumatism and colic for centuries. It's also been used effectively to treat migraines.

But for purposes of this blog, we want to know how to use it for food!

Bay leaf by itself can be used in its fresh or dried forms. Fresh, meaning picked right off the tree and thrown into a pot (assuming of course this is not a tree sprayed with pesticides!). Dried leaves are fresh leaves picked off then simply let to dry out in the sun for 3-4 months. They can be kept in the dried form for years; the fresh form will eventually naturally dry out and then turn into the dried form on its own. Bay leaves are extremely potent -- one leaf can flavor an entire pot of stew -- so they are used sparingly. The fresh form is actually weaker in taste than the dried form, so keep that in mind when working with recipes (you may need to throw in two fresh to 1 dried).

In terms of the taste of bay leaves, they are highly aromatic with pine, woodsy, earthy, and bitter tones. In my opinion it has a slight minty taste as well. The bitterness is quite lovely actually, like a floral bitterness that is very pleasant in cooking especially when paired against sweeter ingredients like carrots, onions, or shellfish. Cooking is all about balance, so you must treat the bay leaf as more so a tool rather than an ingredient, to help you balance out your dishes to get a range of flavors. The bay is also used to add aroma to the dish, and gives the food especially if braised or roasted or stewed for long periods of time a nose and taste of depth and earthiness that makes it quite comforting to eat.

There are actually two kinds of bay leave out on the market now available to us: the California Bay Leaf and the Turkish or Mediterranean Bay Leaf. California bay leaves are longer and more slender, with a decidedly deeper forest green coloring. Either fresh or dried, they will retain that deeper green color. The Turkish bay leaf is always oval-shaped, a little wider rather than slender, and its color ranges from silver-green to green-light brown when dried. The California bay is considerably more pungent; in my experience it takes 2-3 Turkish bay leaves to get to 1 California bay leaf. And often, California bay leaves are larger by size so you must really use those wisely when cooking so it does not completely overtake your dish. When working with California bays, I often cut it in half and use only half of it or pull it out of cooking considerably earlier than I would if using Turkish (which I often can leave until the very end of cooking and remove just right before serving).

Speaking of which, why do we remove the bay leaf? Is it edible? Yes, it's perfectly edible. But it's not pleasant to eat. It's a very tough leaf and hard to chew and digest, even when the shit is cooked out of it for hours. In other words, it's impossible to make a bay leaf tender. Ever. So unless you particularly enjoy gnawing on tough leaves, it's a pain in the ass to chew so just take it out of your dish. Also, if you are sensitive to spices and the like, eating a whole leaf might not be a great idea as it might send you to the bathroom in a fit of diuretics way earlier than you'd like. Eating something whole is different than infusing some of its flavors and properties throughout an entire dish, so best to just take it out before serving.

Bay leaves work beautifully in combination with black peppercorns, green herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, and marjoram, garlic, sweeter vegetables like carrots, onions, peppers, and parsnips, other sweeter spices including cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, and curry, and works very well with shellfish actually. Many people get so scared of flavoring shellfish. We've been screamed by cooks and chefs on TV and in books not to mask the delicate flavors of a flaky white halibut or expensive lobster. That's all bullshit. Bay leaf, although powerful in flavor, goes amazingly with shellfish including lobster and shrimp. Just monitor it closely and pull it out of your cooking process if you taste that it's getting overwhelming.

Here is a recipe using bay leaf with lobster I adapted from a recipe byTyler Florence, adding my own twists. I love making this when I'm feeling lazy but need lobster, and don't want to go through the trouble of boiling one whole. You can ask your fish monger to take off the lobster claws and tail for you, or buy them frozen and thaw them out. This recipe is In Your Face Flavor that doesn't let the lobster puss out and be wimpy, but rather elevates it to a powerful force. This recipes serves 2 people well or 4 for an appetizer. And don't forget the fresh bread to soak up the juices!

Baked Lobster with Garlic, Bay, and Cognac
claws and tails of 2 (1 lb) lobsters
4Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, cut in half
3 large cloves garlic, left whole and smashed with flat side of your knife
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 thick strip orange zest (use a vegetable peeler to get one good strip!)
1 tsp whole peppercorns
1/2 cup cognac

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter and olive oil in an oven-proof pot or pan.* Add the onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, orange zest, and peppercorns and cook for 5 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally so the garlic doesn't burn. Add the lobster claws and tails whole to the pot and toss to coat with the butter mixture. Remove completely from the heat and add the cognac all at once. Then using a lighter stick, stand back and light the cognac, creating a flambe. This will burn the alcohol right off. Once the flame has died down, place the pot in oven and bake uncovered for 15 minutes, or until the lobster is cooked through (if you're using larger than 1.5 lb lobsters, start adding 2 min per pound!) Remove and serve as a whole pot with lobster crackers (the utensil to crack the lobster, not real "crackers") and fresh French baguette.

*A Dutch oven is a perfect pot for this. Even though you're not using the lid, it's size and even cooking will work great for this dish. Conversely, you can just use an oven-proof saute pan. Make sure the entire pan is aluminum or copper, and that there are no plastic parts -- these will melt in the oven! So this means no non-stick pans please! If you have a saute pan that's metal but the handle has some plastic or rubber on it, simply wrap the handle tightly a few times with aluminum foil to do the trick. And remember the oven gloves!

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