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Sweet Herbs - Bay - Laurus nobilis

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© Provided by DKBooks

© Provided by DKBooks

Bay - Laurus nobilis

The bay tree is native to the eastern Mediterranean, but has long been cultivated in northern Europe and the Americas. It came to symbolize wisdom and glory to the Greeks and Romans, who crowned kings, poets, Olympic champions, and victorious generals with wreaths of its glossy, leathery leaves. Although there are several varieties of bay, only L. nobilis is used in the kitchen.

Culinary uses

Bay leaves yield their flavor slowly, so they are useful in stocks, soups, stews, sauces, marinades, and pickles. Put a leaf or two on top of a homemade pâté or terrine before baking it; add bay to any fish stew, or combine with lemon and fennel when filling the cavity of a fish to be baked; thread leaves onto kebabs (soak dried leaves in water first), or add them to a pilaf. Bay is always included in a bouquet garni, and to flavor the milk for béchamel sauce. It goes well with beans, lentils, and tomatoes, especially to flavor a tomato sauce.

The Turks use bay in steamed and slow-cooked lamb dishes, the Moroccans in chicken and lamb tagines; the French partner it with beef in Provençal daubes. Bay also gives a pleasant, unusual, spicy fragrance to baked custards and rice pudding and to poached fruit dishes. In Turkish spice bazaars, boxes of dried figs are often lined with bay leaves.

Two or three bay leaves flavor a dish for four to six people; if you put in too many, the flavor will be too strong. Remove the leaves before serving. Note also that in India, parts of the Caribbean, and South America, leaves of other species may be called bay leaves.

Essential to bouquets garnis, béchamel sauce.

Good with beef, chestnuts, chicken, citrus fruits, fish, game, lamb, lentils, rice, tomatoes, white beans.

Combines well with allspice, garlic, juniper, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, savory, thyme.

Tasting notes

Bay has a sweet, balsamic aroma with notes of nutmeg and camphor, and a cooling astringency. Fresh leaves are slightly bitter, but the bitterness fades if you keep them for a day or two. Fully dried leaves have a potent flavor and are best when dried only recently.

Parts used

Fresh and dried leaves.

Buying and storing

Fresh leaves can be used from a tree, but are less bitter if kept until wilted. To dry completely, lay leaves flat in a dark, well-aired place and leave until brittle. If stored in an airtight container, dried leaves will keep their aroma and flavor for at least a year; stale leaves have no flavor.

Grow your own

Although bay does best in warm regions, it will survive in a sheltered, sunny position in cooler climates. It is a good container plant, and growing it like this has the advantage that it can be moved indoors for the winter where not hardy. In warm climates it produces small, yellow flowers in spring, followed by purple berries (which are not edible). Leaves can be picked throughout the year.

Fresh leaves

Fresh leaves need to be crushed or rubbed to release their aromatic compounds. Bay is indispensable in French and Mediterranean cooking.

Bouquet garni

A bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs used to flavor slow-cooked dishes. The classic includes a few sprigs of thyme and parsley with a bay leaf .

Dried leaves

Dried bay leaves should remain a mat, sage green, and not turn yellow or brown. Crumble or grind the leaves only when you need them.

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