Bay is one of my favorite herbs because with its sweet, slightly pungent balsamic aroma and spikes of nutmeg and camphor, the beauty of cooking with bay is that it releases its flavor slowly, so that it is an essential herb for slow, long cooking techniques. That's why I call it one of the Big Tastes- it hangs in there for the long haul, not like some of the other more delicate herbs that are really flash-in-the-pan tastes.
Indeed, stocks, soups, stews, sauces, marinades, stuffing and pickles benefit from the addition of fresh or dried bay leaves. Garnishing cooked or cold-pressed paté or terrines with a leaf or two infuses the spicy essence of the Mediterranean, its native homeland. Fish dishes are enhanced by the combination of bay and fennel; lamb and other robust meats may be stewed or grilled with bay as a key ingredient; bay adds the characteristic flavor to béchamel sauce; tomatoes, oregano, thyme and bay are the foremost ingredients in tomato sauce; bay is a popular herb used to flavor wines; and it is positively brilliant in baked bean and lentil dishes.
Boquet Garni is the French name for a bundle of cooking herbs tied together with string and used to flavor slow-cooked dishes. Whole fresh sprigs and leaves are preferred but dried herbs are a practical option. The traditional Boquet Garni combination is thyme, parsley and bay. Often the sprigs of thyme and parsley are wrapped in a large bay leaf, tied and hung to dry and stored in a cool, dark place for using throughout the winter months.
Sweet dessert dishes also benefit from the addition of bay. Custard, poached fruit, sweet sauces, simple sugar syrup, and rice desserts are richly complex thanks to the addition of bay.
Bay complements the following herbs in foods:
I have found that many supermarkets are now selling fresh leaves in the produce section, so look there first–besides being more flavorful, the fresh will be larger and less expensive than dried bay in a jar. Fresh leaves store best if wrapped in a moistened tea towel and placed in a sealed plastic bag on the door of the refrigerator. Fresh leaves need to be rubbed or crushed to release their aromatic compounds. Eventually the fresh leaves will dry. Keep dried bay leaves whole in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Store dried bay leaves for one year and then replace with fresh because the essential oils dissipate over time.
Usually whole leaves are added to foods at the beginning of the cooking time and removed at the end. One or two whole leaves are enough to spice up a dish that serves 4 to 6 people. Rarely are bay leaves shredded before using, except when being used in a tea blend, because the smaller bits are too difficult to remove from the cooked dish. Even more rare is ground bay because the whole leaves flavor dishes without the trouble of grinding.
What people often overlook is Bay's big taste in desserts. Try these poached peaches with the Bay Custard and tell me what you think?
If you have any unusual ways of using bay in cooking, I sure would be happy to hear about them and post them here for other BayHeads.
Poached Peaches with Apricot Ginger Sauce
Use other fruit such as pears, nectarines, apples and plums in place of the peaches.
Makes 8 halves
1-1/2 cups apple juice
1/2 cup white wine
Half vanilla bean Half
1 3-inch licorice root, optional
1 bay leaf
4 peaches, halved and stoned
1/3 cup finely chopped dried apricots (or roughly chopped fresh)
1 tsp finely chopped candied ginger
1 cup yogurt, optional for garnish
1. In a large skillet, combine apple juice, wine, vanilla, licorice and bay. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Add peach halves, cut side down. Cover, reduce heat and gently simmer for 7 minutes or until peaches are crisp-tender.
2. Remove peach halves from poaching liquid, set aside. Remove and discard vanilla, licorice and bay from poaching liquid. Add apricots and ginger and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally for 15 to 20 minutes or until liquid is reduced and syrupy.
3. . Arrange peaches on individual plates, spoon apricot sauce over. Garnish with yogurt if using. Serve immediately.
Infusing the milk as it heats imparts not only the flavor of the herbs but their medicinal benefits as well.
1/2 cup soy or rice milk
1 whole (3-inches) vanilla bean
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary
12 oz firm ‘silken style’ tofu
1. In a small saucepan, combine milk, vanilla, bay and rosemary. Cover and bring to a light simmer over medium-low heat. Remove from heat and cool with lid on. Strain and discard vanilla, bay and rosemary.
2. In a blender or food processor, process tofu for 30 seconds or until smooth. With motor running, add infused milk through opening in the lid. Custard should be blended and smooth. Store: Cover tightly and keep in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.
Serve: Spoon over poached pears, peaches, cherries or baked apples. Pass as a sauce for gingerbread or breakfast grain dishes.