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The Way of Bay

The noble bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, in fact) harkens back to ancient Greece, when kings were crowned with wreaths of bay and Olympic champions were awarded bay garlands. An evergreen relative of camphor and sassafras, the tree is native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean area but is now cultivated in many other regions.

With a smooth, olive-green or reddish bark, it grows to a height of about 25 feet in Britain (where it’s also known as sweet bay and laurel) and in warmer climates to as much as 60 feet. The leaves are alternate, elliptical, dark green and shiny, with short, 3- to 4-inch stalks. Clusters of small yellow flowers bloom in the spring and are followed by shiny purple/black berries.

Cooking with Bay

Despite its historical significance as a medicinal and celebratory plant, bay is now renowned mostly for its contributions in the kitchen. It’s a key ingredient in French and Mediterranean dishes, including pâté, bouillabaisse, and bouillon and — along with other seasonings like parsley and thyme — in bouquet garni. You’ll also find it in Spanish and Creole cooking, where it flavors shellfish, pickling brines, marinades, sauces, and many fish dishes. In American kitchens, bay is found in hearty everyday tomato sauces, gravies, soups and chilies. Try it in any grain, meat, or bean dish, too.

Bay’s sweet, balsamic scent is quickly apparent, but it takes a while for its flavor to permeate foods, so add it to dishes—like hearty soups, gravies and stews, stewed chicken, pot roast or poached fish—early on. Use just one or two leaves for most dishes of six servings. Be sure to remove the whole leaves before serving, because they’re bitter and sharp and can be dangerous if accidentally swallowed. (No, they’re not poisonous, though some people have an allergic reaction to the essential oil.)

Beans have an affinity for bay leaf, as do stews. Our friends at Frontier Natural Products Co-op offer this savory recipe for a bean bay stew. Combining these ingredients well before serving allows the flavors to meld, even while away from the stove.

Make-Ahead Bean Bay Stew

1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic granulated
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup black beans, cooked, drained
1/2 cup pinto beans, cooked, drained
1/2 cup butter beans, cooked, drained
1/2 cup red lentils, cooked, drained
2 cups water
2 tablespoons vegetable flavored broth powder
1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes
2  bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon dill weed
1/2 teaspoon dry yellow mustard
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse grind black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
2 cups sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled and cubed

Sauté onion, carrots, and celery in oil. Add all of remaining ingredients and mix well. Remove from heat and let sit for an hour or more in the refrigerator. Heat to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes just before serving.

Other tips about bay leaves:

If your bay leaves have turned grey, it’s time to replace them because they’ve lost their chlorophyll during storage. Store your new bay leaves in a dry, cool place out of sunlight. (A dark jar or a jar placed in a cupboard is perfect.)
The most important thing to know is that you want authentic sweet bay or laurel leaf, Laurus nobilis. Some spice companies sell a substitute plant, California bay (Umbellularia californica), as bay leaf. However, that plant is inferior as a culinary spice.
In fact, California bay has not been given GRAS status (generally recognized as safe for human consumption) by the Food and Drug Administration, and it’s not listed in the Code of Federal Regulations as a spice. One of the main constituents of California bay, umbellulone, is considered a central nervous system toxin when eaten. And when inhaled, it may cause headache, sinus irritation, and sneezing. The California bay -- which is longer and darker green than sweet bay -- also has a harsher, more camphorous taste.
It’s worth making sure that the bay leaf you purchase is authentic.

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