Bay leaf, bay laurel, sweet bay, laurus nobilis. Toss one into any soup or sauce and you’ll add a depth of flavor unlike any other. Best of all, you can grow your own bay tree right here in the Northwest. More shrub-like in our climate, they make an excellent evergreen in a large pot and in my experience, can withstand fairly low temperatures. Although they prefer abundant moisture, they’re forgiving when we have our usual summer droughts.
Jerry Traunfeld in The Herbfarm Cookbook describes bay as having a “sweet and refreshing pungency, heavy with the scent of nutmeg and cardamom and punctuated by layers of vanilla, lemon and pine.” Well said. I prefer to use bay in the background as an undertone to add richness and subtle flavor. While Traunfeld has several wonderful recipes highlighting bay, like the Mashed Winter Squash with Bay Butter below, I tend to use about half as many leaves as he suggests, maybe even less. With bay, the fresher it is, the more flavor it brings to any dish, so if you’re walking outdoors, pulling off a leaf or two, you may not need to use as much as when you’re using dried leaves.
Any broth, soup or chowder will benefit from having a bay leaf to support and bring together all the other flavors while adding it’s own gentle voice to the mix. I made salmon chowder last week using some leftover salmon from the night before. I love this recipe because it works with any type of fish and it’s lighter than the usual thick and gooey deli chowder.
Northwest Salmon Chowder
Ingredients: About a lb, give or take, of salmon or any other fish you might have, in chunks, skin removed (clams are an obvious choice too)/ 3 cups chicken broth/ 2 slices bacon, chopped/ 1 onion, diced/ 2 T flour/ 1 bay leaf/ 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves, chopped/ 2 large potatoes, peeled and chopped/ 2 cups milk/ 1 cup half & half/ 2 T sherry vinegar/ Dash of Worcestershire sauce (optional)/ Salt & pepper to taste.
Directions: Cook bacon slowly in soup pot until lightly crisp/ Add onion and cook until translucent, about 5-7 minutes/ Add flour and cook over low heat, stirring for 2-3 minutes/ Whisk in chicken broth and cook for 5 minutes or until it begins to thicken/ Add bay leaf and fresh thyme/ Add potatoes and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes/ Place fish, milk and half & half in a saucepan and simmer until fish is done, about 8-10 minutes depending on thickness of fish/ Add milk and fish to soup base/ Simmer for a minute or two/ Stir in sherry vinegar/ Salt & pepper to taste.
Nothing quite hits the spot like a bowl of belly-warming chowder on a rainy winter day. My recipe was inspired by one for New England Clam Chowder from the Culinary Institute of America.
Mashed Winter Squash with Bay Butter
Ingredients: 1 large winter squash such as delicata, acorn or kombucha, split in half, seeds scooped out/ 4 T unsalted butter/ 2-4 fresh bay leaves/ 1 T maple syrup.
Directions: Preheat oven to 400/ Place squash halves cut side up on baking dish, dotting each side with butter/ Bake until very soft, 45 min. to an hour/ Place butter in a small skillet with bay leaves/ Cook slowly over low heat until solids at bottom of skillet turn brown, about 10-15 minutes/ Scoop squash out of skin into a mixing bowl and strain bay butter over it/ Mash with a potato masher or immersion blender/ Stir in 1/2 -1 t salt and maple syrup.
You can buy a bay plant from the Territorial Seed Company if you can’t find one at your local nursery or farmers market.