Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Save the Bay

Meet my Bay Tree:

Yes, he's tall, dark and handsome. He's sweet and spicy and his scent drives me wild. He adds depth to every dish he meets. He warms up my winter soups and stews. And, yes, for those of you who are still wondering, I am simply mad about my bay tree. ;)
Bay leaves might well be the most under-appreciated herb in cooking. No one celebrates bay leaves; when mentioned in recipes, it's mostly "Drop in bay leaf", or "Remove bay leaf", never "Celebrate the joy that this bay leaf brought to your stew!", which, in my humble opinion, is at it should be.
Last year, when Joe was born, one of our friends brought us a large container of homemade chicken noodle soup. It was lovely: The clear broth, the huge pieces of chicken breast meat, the chunks of fresh celery and carrots. The noodles were served on the side, so as to not overly thicken the stew before its time. It held so many promises, and was a beauty to behold. I heated it up and took a sip, and my heart sank. Here, our friend had gone to immense trouble to make us a lovely dinner, and no one had told him about the joy a bay leaf could bring to his otherwise perfect soup. NO ONE. The soup was good, but it would have been sent into the upper echelon of divine if only our sweet friend had known about bay leaves, my dearest herb.
As many of you know, there are times when subtlety is not my gift. I immediately went out and purchased a nice, plump bay tree for our friend and handed it over along with the thank you note. I told him, simply, "Your soup was wonderful, but you need to learn the joy that bay leaves will bring to your soups and stews." I wanted to add, "Go forth and plant this is thy yard, and ye shall be rewarded, " but thought that might be overkill. I have not heard back from him, but, I assure you: I will corner him and make sure he is using his bay leaves.
And, I must add that not only do bay leaves breathe a life into your dishes that borders on spiritual, but there are other uses for this deep glossy green leaf. Having now gone through my second round of pantry moths, I can also say that bay leaves will defend your home from assault by these grain-eating goblins. After a good cleaning, scatter a few fresh bay leaves on each shelf and you will deter any pantry moth that has designs on converting your whole wheat flour into a summer cottage. Change the leaves every month and you will also have the added benefit of opening your cupboards to the gentle sweet scent of bay... ahhhhh. I also store bay leaves in with my cookie cutters. The pantry moths discovered that I don't always get all the flour off of the cutters, so they set up shop in my plastic containers where I stored them.
Though I am a fan of bay leaf in everything from light and luscious chicken soups to rich and hearty chilis, the recipe that really turned me on to the bay leaf was a simple beef stew. I will admit that the first time I made it, I still didn't eat beef but was making it for Tim to have some sustenance during his first year of medical school. (I was practicing my Italian Mamma skillz!) I nipped a taste of the broth toward the end of cooking to make sure my seasonings were right and was stricken by the rich flavor the combination of thyme and bay leaf brought to this soup. The balance of the earthy thyme and the spicy-sweet bay made me swoon and I've been smitten ever since.
It's promising to be a cool, rainy Fall weekend. Bring on the bay leaves!

The stew with all but the peas...

Beef Stew
2 T whole wheat flour
1/2 t paprika
1/4 t black pepper
1-1/4 lbs stew beef, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 T vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 cups beef stock
1/2 t dried thyme
1 bay leaf
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 carrots, sliced
1-1/2 cups frozen peas
2 T chopped fresh parsley
Combine flour, paprika and pepper in bowl. Add beef cubes and toss until coat meat evenly. Heat oil in Dutch oven or soup pot. Add meat and brown on all sides over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until golden brown. Add stock, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer for 1-1/4 hours, or until meat is tender. Remove bay leaf and add potatoes, carrots, peas and parsley. Simmer stew 10 minutes longer. Makes 4 servings.
Serve with crusy bread and a pot of whipped unsalted butter.

And don't forget: Whoever gets the bay leaf gets to kiss the cook!

A steaming bowl of beef stew on this cold rainy night!

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