Bay leaves (Recipe: pasta e fagiole)
''I wouldn't wear it outdoors because it would fall off when I played tennis,'' he answered, but he said that he might get a wreath made of bay leaves, which is a species of laurel. That way, he added, ''When I bowed my head to say grace, I could also season the soup.''
Odds are, that wreath would be made from Laurus nobilis, the variety of bay leaf native to the eastern Mediterranean, known to us as Turkish bay leaf, Greek laurel, or sweet bay. There are other varieties, most notably Umbellularia californica, native to western North America and often called California bay, which is much stronger in flavor than the Mediterranean variety. In ethnic markets you also can find Indonesian bay leaf (Eugenia polyantha), which looks like Mediterranean bay when fresh, but turns black when dried, and Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tejpata), which is more like cassia, with the aroma of cinnamon and cloves.
Bay leaves are integral to bouquet garni, a traditional French seasoning consisting of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf, tied together (if fresh) or wrapped in cheesecloth (if dried). Celery, garlic, fennel, orange peel, and marjoram are common additions to a bouquet garni.
I always assumed that the reason we buy bay leaves dried had to do with transportation and storage, but I learned recently that bay leaves, like most of us, mellow with age. You can use them right off the tree, but they will be more bitter than if they dry for a couple of days. When you buy completely dried leaves, store them in an airtight container for up to a year.
Next time you make gravy, which is what we Rhode Islanders call marinara sauce (and what my mother used to call spaghetti sauce), or chicken stock, or beef stew, make half the recipe with a bay leaf, and half without. Taste each batch. You won't say "ah, this one has bay leaf," but you'll taste the "without" batch and say, "oh, something's missing."
That's the funny thing about a bay leaf: You can hardly ever identify the flavor in a dish, but you can always tell if you've left it out.
Pasta e fagiole
My cooking library harbors many strange and wonderful books. Gentlemen, Start Your Ovens: Killer Recipes for Guys, by Tucker Shaw, falls into both categories. Don't be fooled by the title; the author sets out to demystify cooking for everyone. This slightly-adapted recipe, for a quick version of the classic soup known hereabouts as "pasta fazool", serves 4.
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
Pinch of kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
1 Turkish bay leaf
4 cups chicken stock (homemade or store-bought low-sodium) or vegetable stock
14 oz canned diced tomatoes, with their juice
1 Tbsp ketchup
15 oz canned cannellini beans
1/2 lb dried spaghetti, broken into pieces 3-4 inches long, or any stubby pasta
5 oz bag of baby spinach leaves
In a stock pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and sauté until the vegetables are soft. Add the bay leaf, chicken stock, tomatoes and juice, ketchup and cannellini beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the pasta and simmer for 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally to keep the beans from sticking. Fish out the bay leaf. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add the spinach, and stir to combine. As soon as the spinach wilts, the soup is ready. (Note: like many bean soups, this one improves with age. It will be delicious on the first day, and better on the second.)
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