In another article I mentioned that spices are usually thought of as dried seeds or stems from various plants while herbs are usually thought of as the leaves. Bay leaves are an exception; while they are leaves of the Bay Laurel tree (Umbellularia californica), most of us think of them as a spice.
Bay leaves originated from the Mediterranean region as well as in and around Turkey.
They're members of the laurel family; the leaves were used to make wreaths for Olympic champions in the days before gold medals. Why laurel leaves? As the story goes,after the Greek god Apollo attempted to rape the nymph Daphne, the Earth spirit Gaea hid her by transforming her into a laurel tree. Apollo in turn made the tree sacred, so it became a powerful symbol of honor, not just as a crown for athletes, but as a spiritual medium/hallucinogen for the oracle of Delphi and as a nod of respect.
In the Middle Ages, bay leaves were popular insecticides and medicine, their lauric acid a good fix for keeping moths at bay.
The rich, gentle, savory flavor paired easily with popular roast meats and the stocks and sauces rapidly developing in Medieval and Renaissance kitchens. We haven't changed much about how we use bay leaves since then. Today bay leaves are typically used to season long-cooking dishes like soups and braises, but it can also enhance the flavor of quicker-cooking dishes like risotto, pasta sauce, or even a simple pot of rice. The key is to have at least a little liquid for the bay to infuse and heat to get the process going.
If you're not sure you know what bay really tastes or smells like, a good experiment to try sometime is to put a few bay leaves in a cup of boiling water. Let it steep for a few minutes and then take a big whiff. On its own like this, it's hard to believe anyone ever thought to put bay leaves in their cooking. Steep a few leaves in a warm broth or sauce, and your dish becomes infused with flavor and very fragrant. It's not usually a very dominant seasoning, but its woodsy flavor and slight bitterness helps to balance the flavors in a dish. You'd miss it if it weren't there.
Here are some recipes where you can give bay leaves a try. ere's a great one to take away the cold winter chill.
Cheesy Cauliflower Soup
1 large head cauliflower, broken into florets
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium chicken bouillon granules
2 cups half-and-half cream
2 cups 2% milk
1 medium carrot, shredded
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup mashed potato flakes
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese
In a large saucepan, combine the cauliflower, broth and bouillon. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and cook for 20 minutes or until tender.
Mash cauliflower; transfer to a 3-qt. slow cooker. Stir in the cream, milk, carrot, bay leaves and garlic powder; cover and cook on low for 3 hours. Stir in potato flakes.
Cook 30 minutes longer or until thickened. Discard bay leaves. Cool slightly.
In a blender, process soup in batches until smooth. Return to the slow cooker; stir in cheese. Cook until soup is heated through and cheese is melted.
Garnish with paprika.
Yield: 8 servings
Potatoes Roasted with Olive Oil and Bay Leaves
8 medium-size red-skinned potatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
40 small bay leaves
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence*
1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely cracked black pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F. Using small sharp knife and working on 1 potato, make 5 crosswise vertical cuts, spaced evenly apart, from 1 side to other side (do not cut through). Place potato in 13x9x2-inch broiler proof baking dish. Repeat with remaining potatoes. Add some of oil to dish and toss potatoes to coat. Slide 1 bay leaf into each cut in each potato. Mix salt, herbs, and pepper in small bowl and sprinkle over potatoes. Roast potatoes until tender, about 55 minutes. Remove dish from oven. Preheat broiler. Drizzle remaining oil over potatoes. Broil until potatoes begin to brown, about 4 minutes.
*A dried herb mixture available at specialty foods stores and in the spice section of some supermarkets. A combination of dried thyme, basil, savory, and fennel seeds can be substituted.
Bay Leaf Tea
Older folks in the Caribbean believe that bay leaf tea can lower your blood pressure, aid with digestive problems and even get rid of headaches. Folk medicine is still alive in the Caribbean. Whether or not these claims are true, one thing is certain, you'll love this tea.
3 large fresh bay Leaves
2 cups water
Sugar and milk (optional)
Add the bay leaves and water to a pot, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Let boil for 3 minutes then remove the pot from the heat and let the tea steep for 4 minutes.
Strain and drink or sweeten to suit your taste. If using milk, only use a small splash, as too much milk will dilute the flavor of the tea.
Give some of these a try; bring some bay Leaves into your kitchen.