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whb: grow your own sweet bay

Weekend Herb Blogging is Kalyn's weekly venture into the land of herbs and always offers a collection of international food writers weighing in with delightful ideas for using the goodness that is fresh herbs. This week's edition is being guest-hosted by Virginie at Absolutely Green who has a French-English blog with some yummy looking pictures of food and France both.

Baymidfeb06Of all the herbs in my garden, I brought three plants with me when I moved, leaving the rest to overwinter in a friend's yard while we got settled. A Tuscan Blue rosemary, the largest of the spanish lavender, and the sweet bay tree rode with me and the cats in the pickup truck. Had I been forced to a decision, the rosemary and lavender could have spent the winter with the rest, but the bay had to be with me.

Pretty strong feelings for an herb whose dried leaves are actually not too bad, widely available and usually inexpensive. For many cooks, bay is a necessary part of the melange of herbs used in things like soups, stews, pot roasts, and, of course, marinara sauce. When used this way, bay provides a difficult to describe flavor that adds a sort of depth and complexity to the dish without leaving a discernable flavor of its own. To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Stewart, I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I don't taste it.

Had that been the limit of my sweet bay love, I'd have been happy with a quick stop for fresh dried leaves. But while dried bay leaves are nice, they lack what I most prize in bay: the warmly spicy scent and flavor that I use in desserts and a variety of quick infusions.

Unable to find fresh leaves in the grocery store — although you can now in some places, evenTinierTown is notone of those places — I indulged my serious love for fresh bay a handful of years ago with a small tree. Although it's a tree from considerably warmer climates, it's lived right up next to the Canadian border where winters got downright nippy and is now settling into the somewhat more temperate fog valley. Bay trees do fine outside in USDA zone 8 (or warmer). If you live in a colder location, don't despair, bay can be grown in a large pot and brought in to a sunny spot in the house for the winter.

Baybeforestripping Winters in marginal climates can be a bit difficult for bay trees, particularly in the first year or two after planting or a move, resulting in rather trashed looking — yellow and bug-eaten — leaves but bay trees will regrow leaves if existing ones are removed carefully. Just pull the disgusting looking leaf downward, against the direction of growth, and it will come away leaving a bud for a new leaf (or a bundle of leaves). Once the tree has visible leaf bundles at the branch tips, like the ones in the picture on the left (which I took last week), bad leaves get stripped off.


This encourages new growth and a month later I am rewarded with something more like the picture oon the right. By the end of summer these leaves will be full-sized and starting to get stiff and leathery, which they must do before they are mature enough to use in the kitchen.

You can grow new bay trees from softwood (tip) cuttings taken in early fall and kept in a protected place over the winter. I used a plastic clamshell from some strawberries and put it on a south-facing windowsill last fall and have several babies this spring. They will get put in small pots soon and brought in for the first few winters. While this is amusing, and in a decade I'll have a bunch of new trees, it's not a very practical way to get your first bay tree. Buy one and make more to play with. I'm thinking of trying a set of bonsai herb plants: bay tree, rosemary, sage, english thyme, and so on. Should be fun, but I don't expect it to produce much in the way of useable herbs.

As I mentioned, some of my favorite bay recipes are bassed on infusions, often in cream. And really, "steep fresh bay leaves in cream" isn't such a bad start for a recipe, is it?

A few quick bay infusions:

Bay Brown Butter
    Use on pasta, vegetables (winter sqashes like delicata and
    acorn make particularly good partners, as does squash-filled
    pasta...even if you have to make it yourself...)

Use 1 fresh bay leaf for every 1-2 tablespoons of butter.
Crack the bay leaves and put them in a saucepan with the butter. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes or so, watching to make sure that it doesn't burn, until it turns medium brown and gives off a nutty smell. Let cool, then remove the bay leaves.

Bay Mashed Potatoes
    Steeping the bay in the liquid you usually add to your mashed
    potatoes is a simple change to your usual recipe, but it shows
    what a difference a small change can make.

Just before you put the potatoes on to boil, heat the milk (or other liquid) for your mashed potatoes in a small saucepan until just simmering. Turn off the burner, add butter (or other fat if you are using any) and a few cracked bay leaves to the milk, cover and leave on cooling burner (the one you turned off) while potatoes cook. When potatoes are ready for mashing, remove the bay leaves and use the liquid in the potatoes as usual.

Bay-infused Whipped cream
    This is especially good on fall pies like apple or pumpkin, but it's
    also quite tasty when used in summer treats like strawberry
    shortcake. It pairs well with most fruits and spicy flavors like
    vanilla, nutmeg, and ginger.

Use 1 bay leaf for every 1/4 cup of cream.
Heat unwhipped cream in a saucepan over low heat until just simmering. Remove from heat, add bay leaves and cover. Let infuse at room temperature for 30 minutes, remove bay leaves and chill well. Whip and serve as usual.

Note on whipping cream:If you can get cream that is NOT ultra-pasteurized, by all means do so. It's harder to whip after it's been heated again (something in what happens to the fat during the super-heating process, I'd have to go get my McGee to explain it) but as long as it's well chilled after infusing it's just fine. On particularly hot nights, I've been known to float the bowl the cream is in inside another bowl filled with ice water to keep the cream chilled while whipping it...sort of the anti-double-boiler, a double-cooler if you will.

General tips for bay infusions:

  • Bay leaves should be "cracked" (this one's literal: gently crush the leaf in your hand until you hear or feel it crack) and added to heated liquid for at least 15-30 minutes (up to an hour) to extract flavor. If you have less time, you can add an extra leaf (don't get carried away, it's easy to overdo bay).
  • Fat in the liquid helps with the infusion so if you will be using melted/liquid fat in the recipe, add it to the bay infusion.
  • Infusing bay as a single flavor, especially in sweets, is pretty much a fresh bay trick. While dried bay gives up wonderful, albeit difficult to pin down, flavors in savory dishes, the more subtle spicy notes tend to dissapate during drying.
  • Similarly, this requires true Sweet Bay (Laurus Nobilis), not California Bay, Sweet Bay magnolia, or one of the other leaves sold as sweet bay. I'll leave the debate over whether any of these other bays are useful culinarily to others, but the other bays lack the subtle spice undertones that are desired here and will produce a notably bitter result. (I'm a sweet bay purist, myself, but I will admit that if I had a grove of California Bay growing next to my house, I might use them in an ocasional savory dish.)

Detect a theme? Crack bay leaf, toss in liquid, steep, remove bay, use. Try infusing the cream for a creme brulee, or the custard base for vanilla ice cream. Or dipping something in the bay butter: lobster? artichokes?

Got a favorite use for sweet bay that I've missed? Please share!

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