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BAY LEAVES are the burnt-orange flares of the herb world. Once, like curly parsley, they were everywhere. And then they weren’t.
Maybe they fell out of favour along with French food as we became enamoured with other kitchens like Thai, Mexican or Italian, which don’t use them as much. Or maybe they just didn’t fit easily into those little glass herb jars.
Whatever happened, it’s time to bring back the bay as your bae. Here’s how to use the aromatic leaves to bring a little of their mellow, calming fragrance to your cooking.
The bay leaf mellows out the flavour of all manner of soups, stews and braises. Add a couple of fresh leaves to the meat for your shepherd’s pie or Bolognese or wrap them with a couple of stalks of parsley and thyme sprigs to throw into boeuf Bourgignon. This little French bundle, the bouquet garni, can be added to soups, stocks, poaching liquid for chicken and even to braising lentils to add herby fragrance.
The Spanish are bolder still. Throw fresh bay leaves into a tray bake with chicken thighs, potatoes, stock, sherry and loads of garlic. Or add some paprika, cherry tomatoes and slices of capsicum instead of the potatoes if you want to bring some colour to the party.
Braise potatoes, tightly packed in a covered pan with a couple of cups of chicken or vegetable stock, a few smashed garlic cloves and a couple of torn fresh bay leaves. This makes for fine spuds to go with grilled chicken. Yes, they do taste better tossed in butter and a little salt before serving.
THE GOOD OIL
Given their high oil content, bay leaves do interesting things when used to wrap or sandwich ingredients for cooking. Try making skewers for the barbecue with chunks of beef separated by bay leaves like they do in Portugal, or even slip bay leaves into the slits of your Hasselback potatoes to serve with roast chicken. (That’s a recipe from delicious. you’ll find online at delicious.com.au.) Bay leaves also work well with strong oily fish such as mackerel whether it’s in a marinade or as a bed to roast the fish on.
Back playing a more restrained role, bay leaves can also add a lovely easy fragrance to more gently flavoured seafood dishes such as a classic Mediterranean seafood stew, or even braised calamari, where saffron and tomatoes are to the fore. They also help tomatoes and capsicums star in an Espelette pepper-spiced Basque piperrada, Gascon pipérade, Provençale ratatouille or Italian caponata.
It’s a mark of the bay leaf’s flexibility that it will add its fragrance just as well when used in a more classic French bisque and richer fish soups when used with shallots, tomato paste sweated in butter and finished with cognac and a little cream.
SAVOURY AND CREAMY
Bay leaves love the rich fattiness of cream and milk, too. A classic example is blanquette de veau, another dish of Burgundian origin that uses bay leaves, but here in a creamy sauce for a white veal ragoût. Also use bay leaves in anything from a more elegant béchamel or a bread sauce, which is an essential accompaniment for roast chicken at my place.
SWEET AND CREAMY
Bay leaves also play nicely with the sweet kids on the block. Infuse bay leaves in the milk for custard or make a bay-leaf panna cotta that will go perfectly with strawberries – they love bay almost as much as they love basil and black pepper. Bay leaves contain similar flavour compounds to those found in cardamom, rosemary, nutmeg and cinnamon, so partner a bay custard with sour rhubarb, or add the leaves to a sugar syrup when stewing apricots, or in an ice-cream to serve with cardamom-laced brownies.
Steep a couple of lightly crushed fresh bay leaves in a mug of hot water for a lovely perfumed tea that has a eucalypt or minty note, which goes well with the foil of a slice of lemon. Or take a longer approach and infuse fresh bay leaves in a bottle of rum to use later in desserts and cocktails.