From M., 7 February 2012, bay leaves: uses?
Q: One of my work colleagues has a surplus of fresh bay leaves. I am used to adding bay leaves to stews and tomato sauces to deepen the flavour. I had thought of pounding a leaf up in a pestle with some salt, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce, to make a steak marinade.
I am hoping you can advise about other ideas, and I have heard that it is not a good idea to eat bay leaves raw?
A: Thanks for your question. Bay leaves come from the bay laurel tree, Laurus nobilis. Unlike most other culinary leaves – tarragon, parsley, and the like – bay leaves are milder when fresh. As they dry, they gain astringency and a woodsy quality.
In general, you can use fresh bay leaves the same way as dried – in soups, stews, sauces, and poaching liquids to lend a subtle herbaceous astringency and a slight woodsy character, or when roasting meats or vegetables. They also are essential to dried bean cookery and in Bengali curries. As with dried leaves, don’t go crazy when using bay leaves in liquid, or anywhere the aroma doesn’t disperse into the air. With dried leaves, one large leaf is good, two might be too many and three can make your dish inedibly bitter. Fresh bay is more forgiving, but be careful.
In roasts, or open-air grilling, it’s a different story, since the aromas disperse throughout the oven. You can lay down an entire bed of bay with thyme, garlic, and rosemary (another herb that requires a judicious hand), or tuck several inside a chicken. You can thread them between meat or vegetable chunks on a skewer before grilling. So if you’ve got a huge quantity of fresh leaves to hand, that’s one good way to use them up quickly.
You also can use fresh bay leaves in ways you can’t used the dried product. Somewhat less bitter and woodsy than the dried leaves, fresh bay’s qualities can lend themselves to uses such as fritters (don’t eat the leaf itself; eat the fritter around it), desserts (such as ice cream, panna cotta, rice pudding, or crème brûlée); veloutés and béchamel sauces; infusions (best in combination with other herbs) of olive oil or vodka, or hot chocolate.
The value of the bay leaf lies in its suggestion, not the leaf itself. So don’t eat the leaves. They’re not unsafe to eat, but they are unappetizingly astringent and after the first or second one you won’t be able to taste anything else. Also, because the leaves are fairly leathery and tough, they don’t break easily – especially the fresh leaves. You asked about crushing the leaves with a mortar/pestle to make a marinade. I don’t recommend it. The leaf will break up into little jagged shards, which can injure the diner unless you achieve a pretty fine grind. Just bruise the leaves with a muddler or the flat side of your knife, and add to your marinade ingredients; the aroma will suffuse throughout the liquid.
Whole roast rockfish
We call it rockfish; you probably call it striped bass. If you can’t find it, use any whole white fish, like red mullet. Start the roasted garlic and herbs ahead of time before adding the fish to give the garlic time to caramelize.
You can use the same base for roasting chicken or other meats (lamb would be delicious). For any meat that takes more than 30 minutes to roast, dispense with pre-roasting the garlic and herbs.
20 fresh bay leaves or so
8-10 branches thyme
3 heads of garlic, halved
1 large-ish (4 lb) rockfish/striped bass, or several smaller fish, cleaned and scaled
3 lemons, two quartered and one reserved
salt and pepper
Place the garlic halves in a roasting pan large enough to hold the fish, and drizzle with olive oil. Cover with foil. When the oven is hot, place the pan in the oven and roast about 25 minutes, until the garlic begins to become tender. Remove the foil and add the bay leaves, thyme, and lemon quarters to the pan, reserving a few bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Return to the oven for about 5 minutes more.
Meanwhile, tuck the reserved bay leaves and thyme inside the cavity of the cleaned fish. Cut several shallow slits into the flesh of the fish on both sides, a little less than 1/4″ deep and about 1 1/2″ apart (a little closer if the fish are small), being careful not to cut through to the bone. Season with salt and drizzle with olive oil, on both sides.
Lay the fish atop the bed of garlic and herbs. Roast until the fish is cooked through and opaque – the time will vary by fish, but estimate about 12 minutes for the first inch of thickness including the bone, plus an additional 6-8 minutes for each additional inch of thickness.
Remove from the oven; season with black pepper and serve the fish with additional fresh lemon.
Bay leaf hot chocolate
This is that crazily pudding-like Spanish hot chocolate, the kind you get with churros. In fact, I think you should serve it for pudding, in small cups. If you have it in you to make small churros, or something like beignets or bomboloni, those would make a great accompaniment to the bitter chocolate with the herbs. Generally, I don’t care for whipped cream atop my chocolate – I like its heavy, thick quality – but a little dab would be fine.
If you’re afraid to mix bay and chocolate, let me know and I’ll send you a rice pudding recipe.
2 c/550 ml full fat milk, divided into about 1/4 c milk and the remainder
4 fresh bay leaves
1/2 tsp cornstarch
6 oz/200g high quality bitter chocolate, finely chopped.
additional sugar to taste
Whisk the 1/4 c cold milk and cornstarch together. Set aside.
Place the remaining milk and the bay leaves in a saucepot. Bring not quite to a simmer (about 180F/82C) and remove from the heat. Allow the leaves to steep for 20 minutes; remove (or strain). Bring back to a simmer and whisk in the milk/starch slurry. Simmer for about 3 minutes to cook off the starch taste. Remove from the heat. Do not over-simmer or the starch will break down.
Whisk in the chocolate, off-heat. As it thickens, taste for sweetness. Add additional sugar as necessary. Balance with a small pinch of salt.