A garland of bay leaves was one of the few rewards for the original Olympic champions--those brave athletes who competed naked in 776 B.C. Few of us can hope to become Olympians (and fewer still will compete, um. . .out of uniform), but we can all share some of the glory that is associated with bay leaves when we use them in our kitchens.
Most of us plunk a few bay leaves in our favorite stew, and perhaps in any long-simmering saucy sort of thing, but bay is capable of more. It gives a marinade depth. It's game enough for venison, rabbit and even squirrel. Shellfish boils benefit, as does the poaching liquid for fish. It holds its own with liver, yet can be subtle enough to gently flavor milk for sauces and puddings.
Bay is even at home on the grill, where you can toss several fresh or well-soaked dried leaves on the coals for bay-flavored smoke. Or try alternating fresh bay leaves with pork, chicken or fish on skewers and grilling them.
Bay leaves are one of those ancient herbs native to the Mediterranean region. Legend has it we can thank Apollo for it, or rather his unstoppable lust. He fancied the nymph Daphne, you see. Well, fancied is too mild a word for Apollo's condition. He was smitten. Hopelessly.
Daphne, on the other hand, hated Apollo--she just couldn't stand the sight of him. (To his credit, that was the rascal Cupid's doing.) So, her thoughtful papa turned her into a bay laurel tree so she could escape Apollo's attentions. Well, he worshipped the tree instead, adorned himself with the leaves to be close to her, and the rest is history.
The Latin name for the plant, laurus nobilis, means renowned laurel, which stems (pun intended) from its use to crown kings, doctors, victorious athletes like the Olympians, triumphant soldiers and scholars, and the occasional poet. "Poet laureate" comes from that tradition. And when someone graduates from college with a bachelor's degree--a baccalaureate--they are receiving "the berries of the laurel."
Bay leaves have an equally rich culinary history, as well, and have been used in cooking since Apollo fell for Daphne. This recipe, a modern one, is simple, but delicious. The flavor of the bay infuses the potatoes--it's a perfect accompaniment to fish or poultry.
8 small potatoes
8 bay leaves (preferably fresh)
2 tablespoons butter
Cut a slit in each potato and insert a leaf as far as you can. Melt the butter in a baking dish and roll the potatoes in it to coat them, then bake for an hour at 375 degrees.
When cooking with bay, use one bay leaf per quart of liquid. Personally, I like to use fresh bay leaves whenever possible. The fresh ones have more flavor than the dried, but can be hard to come by.
My first experience with the fresh leaves was in New Orleans years ago. Strolling in the French Quarter, I caught a definite whiff of bay in the air. The leaves on the tree I was brushing past looked and smelled suspiciously like bay. They were--bay laurel grows in frost-free climates like southern Louisiana and is plentiful in the courtyard gardens of the French Quarter. I was smitten (although not as hopelessly as Apollo) and bought a suitcase full of fresh leaves to being back home.
The trees aren't hardy north of zone 8, but you can grow a small one in a pot and bring it inside for the winter like I do. You can find bay plants at some nurseries--ones that specialize in herbs are your best bets. If you're not a gardener, you can buy wreaths of the fresh leaves from cooking specialty catalogs.
Dry bay leaves in a thick book if you want to prevent them from curling. They'll take about two weeks to dry. Use dried leaves quickly, because the flavor evaporates within a few months.
Your grandmother probably put the dried leaves in her flour canister to protect it from weevils, but that's nothing compared to the traditional powers associated with bay. The medieval herbalist Nicolas Culpepper wrote that "neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning will hurt a man where a bay tree is."
Will they protect you in the kitchen? I haven't noticed. They certainly won't if you leave them in the soup and choke on the sharp leaf. So, be kind to yourself and any guests. Use this simple technique to make sure you get all the leaves: count them as you put them in the pot--write down the number if you're as prone to forgetfulness, as I am--and when your dish is done, make sure you remove as many leaves as you put in.
About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.