If it weren't for Apollo, and his frustrated libido, there would be no bay leaves in The Perfect Pantry.
According to mythology, Cupid, taunted by Apollo for childish behavior, exacted revenge by drawing from his quiver two arrows — a golden one for love, and a leaden one to repel love. He aimed the golden arrow at Apollo, and the other at the nymph Daphne, beautiful daughter of the river god Peneus.
Struck by Cupid's dart, Apollo lusted after Daphne, who, thanks to Cupid's trickery, couldn't stand the sight of any man and so made her father promise never to force her to marry. Apollo's desire drove him to pursue the nymph; he chased her, running faster and faster, threatening to overtake. And just when she was within his grasp, she called on her father: "Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger."
Immediately, her body became stiff and encased in bark, her hair turned to leaves, her feet to roots. Peneus had kept his word, and changed her into a bay laurel tree. Apollo — distraught, bewitched, and besotted — decreed that the leaves of the bay laurel would remain forever green. He wove leaves into a crown and wore it always; thus, a crown of bay leaves became a symbol of honor. And in honor of Apollo, laurel wreaths were presented to the victors at the first Olympics in 776 B.C., and they are given to marathon winners to this day.
Poor Apollo, but lucky us.
Most common in the pantry, and found in every kitchen pantry in every region of the world, dried Mediterranean bay leaves, from the Laurus nobilis tree, have a sweet and rich aroma, with very slight overtones of nutmeg and camphor. The leaves actually mellow as they dry; fresh leaves taste more bitter, and should be used sparingly.
The California bay leaf grows on a related tree, Umbellularia californica; the longer, slender leaves are most often used fresh. More potent than the Mediterranean leaves, they also contain umbellulone, which, according to the Field Guide to Herbs & Spices, can cause convulsive sneezing, headaches, and sinus irritation when inhaled deeply.
Bay leaves yield their flavor slowly, which explains their popularity in soups, stews, pickling brines, and marinades. A fundamental component of bouquet garni, bay leaves pair well with beef, poultry, fish, lamb, lentils, tomatoes, and beans.
It's a personal preference, but I find the fresh California leaves too pungent; I'm partial to the smoother flavor of Turkish leaves for all uses. To string them on shish kabob skewers, soften dried leaves by soaking in warm water for 20-30 minutes. Dried bay leaves will keep for a year if stored in an airtight container away from heat. I buy large bags from Penzeys, and divide them among friends.
Bay leaf crusted pork roast
This recipe, from Everyday Food magazine (December 2006), uses bay leaves as an actual ingredient rather than a toss-into-the-pot seasoning. A coating like this would work well on a turkey roulade, too. Serves 8.
8 garlic cloves, peeled
8 dried bay leaves
Coarse salt and ground pepper
4 medium onions, peeled (root ends left intact), each cut into 8 wedges
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 pork rib roast with 8 ribs (4 1/2 to 5 pounds), backbone removed, ribs Frenched (*see note, below)
2 cups fresh parsley leaves
1 cup Dijon mustard
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Using a chef's knife, finely chop garlic and bay leaves together. Gather into a pile; sprinkle with 2 tsp coarse salt and 1/2 tsp ground pepper. Using the flat side of the knife blade, mash mixture into a paste. Set aside.
On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss onions with 2 Tbsp oil; season with salt and pepper. Push onions to the edges of baking sheet. Place pork in center of sheet, fatty side up; rub top with remaining oil, and press on garlic mixture, coating evenly.
Roast, dabbing occasionally with pan juices, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in center of meat (avoiding bones) registers 140°F (temperature will rise 10 to 15 degrees as roast rests), 65 to 75 minutes. (If browning too quickly, tent loosely with aluminum foil.) Transfer roast and onions to serving platter; let rest, loosely covered with foil, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a food processor, blend parsley and mustard until smooth; season with salt and pepper.
Cut roast into chops, and serve with mustard sauce.
*Note: Ask the butcher to leave some fat on top of the pork to keep it moist during roasting, and, for easier carving afterward, to remove the chine bone (or backbone). For an elegant presentation, have the butcher "French" the rib bones, which means to scrape off the gristle and fat.
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