The Big Taste of Bay: Add Pungent Kick to Your Autumn Dishes

With its sweet, slightly pungent balsamic aroma and spikes of nutmeg and camphor, the beauty of cooking with bay is that it releases its flavour slowly, which makes it an essential herb for slow, long cooking techniques.

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 flavour to béchamel sauce; while tomatoes, oregano, thyme and bay are the foremost ingredients in tomato sauce. Bay is a popular herb used to flavour wines and it is positively brilliant in baked bean and lentil dishes.

Bouquet Garni is the French name for a bundle of cooking herbs tied together with string and used to flavour slow-cooked dishes. Whole fresh sprigs and leaves are preferred, but dried herbs are a practical option. The traditional Bouquet 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 – allspice, oregano, cardamom, parsley, garlic, sage, loveage, savory, marjoram, and thyme.

I have found that many supermarkets are now selling fresh bay leaves in the produce section, so look there first. Besides being more flavourful, the fresh leaves 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 leaves 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 crushed before using (except when used in a tea blend) because the smaller bits are too difficult to remove from the cooked dish. Even rarer is ground bay, because the whole leaves flavour dishes without the trouble of grinding.

Try the big taste of bay in the following recipes, reprinted with permission from both The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible (Robert Rose, 2008) and The Vegan Cook’s Bible (Robert Rose, 2009).

Recipes

Hot and Sour Autumn Soup

If you have the time, simmer the soup on low heat for two or three hours the way Asian cooks do. Keep the lid on in order to trap water-soluble nutrients that would otherwise escape in the steam. Use carrots or parsnips in place of the turnip, if necessary.  (Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups finely diced turnip or rutabaga
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms
  • 5 cups vegetable stock
  • 3 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp tamari or soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp molasses or agave nectar
  • 2 fresh or dried bay leaves
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp hot sauce
  • sea salt and pepper, to taste

1) In a large saucepan or soup pot, sauté onions in oil over medium heat for 7 minutes or until soft. Stir in turnip and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Stir in mushrooms, stock, vinegar, tamari, molasses and bay leaves. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 25 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

2) Remove soup from heat. Stir in the hot sauce 1/4 tsp at a time, tasting after each addition, until hot enough. Taste and add salt and pepper as required. Serve.

Sea Gumbo

Arame, a sea vegetable commonly used in Japanese cooking, can be added directly to the pot, no need to pre-soak. The okra thickens the gumbo and adds an authentic flavour to the dish, but if not available it can be replaced with chopped green pepper. (Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 leek, white and tender green parts, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup vegetable stock, divided
  • 1 can (28 oz) tomatoes and juice
  • 1 cup chopped okra, or green bell pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 cup arame
  • 1/2 to 2 tsp ground cayenne pepper

1) In a large saucepan or soup pot, combine onion, leek, garlic, red pepper, celery, oil and 1/4 cup of the stock. Bring to a light boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 10 to 12 minutes or until vegetables are soft.

2) Stir in the remaining 3/4-cup stock, tomatoes and juice, okra, bay leaf, thyme and arame. Cover, simmer, stirring occasionally for 35 minutes or until arame is tender. Remove from heat, taste and add cayenne pepper, a little at a time, until desired taste is achieved. Ladle into soup bowls and serve.

3) (Tip: Arame is a black, shredded sea vegetable available dehydrated, in packets, in Asian grocery stores. It usually requires a few minutes of soaking to reconstitute but that step isn’t necessary for this recipe.)

Cool Weather Cassoulet

This is one of those weekend dishes that can simmer on the stove most of the day – just keep adding stock to the mixture as it thickens and concentrates the flavours. (Serves 6)

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 Tbsp dry mustard powder
  • 1 small eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2+ Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 can (28 oz) tomatoes and juice
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 can (5 oz) tomato paste
  • 3 Tbsp minced anchovies
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1/2 lb mushrooms, cleaned, patted dry and sliced
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup black olives, pitted and sliced, optional
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh savory
  • freshly ground pepper

1) In a medium bowl, combine flour and mustard powder. Add eggplant and toss to coat.

2) In a large saucepan or soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Using tongs, lift enough eggplant into pot to cover bottom in one layer. Brown lightly on all sides. Lift out to a plate. Add more oil if required and continue browning eggplant until all are done. Set both flour mixture and eggplant aside.

3) Drizzle more oil in the pan if required, heat and add onion and celery. Sauté for 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and juice, stock, tomato paste, anchovies, bay and eggplant (with any juices that have accumulated in the bowl). Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 3/4 hour.

4) Stir in carrots and mushrooms. Simmer for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Slowly stir water into the reserved flour mixture to make a smooth paste, stir into the vegetable cassoulet. Add olives, savory and pepper. Simmer for another 15 minutes. Remove from heat and remove bay leaf; serve immediately.

5) Note: Add 1/2 teaspoon salt if both anchovies and olives are omitted.

Vegetable Red Curry

Flavourful and nutritious, this is both a family and casual company entrée. You can omit the hearts of palm or replace them with drained artichokes. (Serves 4 to 6)

Ingredients

  • 1/4 lb green beans, trimmed and cut in 1-inch pieces
  • 1 Tbsp powdered curry
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 carrot, sliced on the diagonal
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, tops and outer leaves removed
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable stock or water
  • 2-1/2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
  • 1 can (14 oz) hearts of palm, drained and coarsely chopped

1) In a small saucepan cover beans with water and bring to a light boil over medium heat. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for seven minutes or just until tender. Drain and set aside.

2) In a large saucepan or soup pot, combine curry powder and oil to make a paste. Gently heat over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for five minutes or until onions soften. Stir in potatoes, carrot, bay, lemongrass, garlic, salt and stock. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer gently for seven minutes or until stock is almost gone.

3) Stir in coconut milk, zucchini, red pepper and hearts of palm, cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add cooked green beans and heat through. Remove from heat and remove bay leaves and lemongrass stalk. Serve immediately.

4) Substitution: Use 1 cup sliced green cabbage in place of the green beans; in step 1 blanch for three to four minutes until soft, drain and set aside. Add to the curry with the potatoes in Step 2.

Poached Pears with Apricot Ginger Sauce

Pears are particularly nice in this spicy ginger sauce, but you can use other fall fruit such as apples and plums in place of the pears. The licorice root adds a subtle anise flavour, but if not available, use 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon in its place. (Makes 8 halves)

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cups apple juice
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Half vanilla bean
  • One 3-inch licorice root, optional
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 pears, halved
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped dried apricots
  • 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 pear halves, cut side down. Cover, reduce heat and gently simmer for seven minutes or until pears are crisp-tender.

2) Remove pear 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) Meanwhile, remove and discard core from pear halves. Arrange pears on individual plates, spoon apricot sauce over. Garnish with yogurt if using. Serve immediately.

Rosemary Custard

Infusing the milk as it heats imparts not only the flavour of the herbs, but their medicinal benefits as well. (Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 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.

3) Store: Cover tightly and keep in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.

4) Serve: Spoon over poached pears, peaches, cherries or baked apples. Pass as a sauce for gingerbread or breakfast grain dishes.

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