Grow your own bay leaves and taste the difference

Bethany Jean Clement
The Seattle Times

Gardening can be challenging for me. (And yes, I’m using “challenging” euphemistically, as in, “The current political landscape is challenging.”)

Sometimes, suddenly, it’s April — or, my God, May — and other things have been happening that are not gardening, maybe challenging things, and you haven’t planted anything and the guilt is intense and you know in your heart that the morning glory situation is going to be very, very bad. (And yes, I know I’ve switched from first person. Please allow me the comfort of projecting. I don’t mean you — yes, I’ve seen your garden on your Instagram.)

Maybe you live in an apartment, and your neighbors have also been neglecting their neighboring garden plots behind the building, and it’s all out of sight, out of mind, out of control. The way the morning glory grows actually can be frightening, as in, you begin pulling at it and it just goes and goes and goes and it’s everywhere and it could take you down.

A few planters, on a balcony, say, are much more manageable — I believe this is what the professionals call “container gardening.” And if you like to cook, growing your own herbs in a few planters is immensely satisfying (especially if you’re an otherwise-challenged gardener). Chives, mint, basil, rosemary and more can be yours, miracles of scent and flavor, right there, practically free, grown by you (hey, good job!).

But we’re here today to talk about bay. Bay leaf seems like an afterthought in any recipe — oh, yes, throw in a crackly, dry, dusty-green bay leaf if you’ve got a jar of them stuck away. (And yes, we should all update our spices religiously with fresh ones, but come on.) You’ve left out the bay leaf, haven’t you? I know I have. Did anybody miss it? No, they did not.

Then a friend who’s got plants in pots, too, enthused about a new addition: a sweet bay. He’d gotten one, it was bountiful, it was beautiful, its leaves can go anywhere regular old dry ones are called for and — why not? — more. Soups, stews, all kinds of Instapot configurations enjoy sweet bay. He said that, due to the bountifulness, he used lots of bay leaves in a given dish, too: three or four, at least.

The sweet bay I got is called “Little Ragu” — a bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), as distinguished from the stronger-flavored (some say too much so) California bay. Its literature calls Little Ragu “easy care” and notes that it thrives in containers. A compliment is also given: “handsome in natural form,” this sweet bay is. The leaves ripple around the edges, and the stems and new growth are tinged with red. It is apparently deer-resistant, but the cat sometimes chews on it a bit (the cat has good taste — chives are also a favorite). The sweet bay likes full or partial sun, and has been responding well to intuitive-style watering when its soil looks dry. It is a perennial.

The leaves themselves don’t smell like much, but break one in half, and the scent is released, slightly sweet but exotic, like a cup of tea or a whiff of perfume in a Mediterranean place, a little citrusy, a bit like clove. I tried the same with a dried bay leaf — one that was not terribly old, either — and it was but a ghostly, papery version of the same. Chewing on a fresh bay leaf tastes both faintly floral and menthol-piney, like it would make your breath smell lovely. The dry one tasted mostly pointy.

Like my friend said, fresh bay leaves find a home in all kinds of soups, stews, chicken dishes, marinades for meats, on a skewer for the grill, more — and, of course, anywhere you would use (or would skip using) a dried one. In the sweets realm, you can scent homemade ice cream, panna cotta or creme brulee with sweet, fresh bay. A very simple tomato sauce made with fresh bay leaves tastes subtly splendid — the sweet bay seems to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, while also adding a little complexity to the whole.

With fresh bay, you can be experimental, and you can be generous. Use several leaves — why not? Look at your bountiful bay friend — it just wants to give and give. If you don’t completely denude it, it will just make more leaves for you.

I love my sweet bay plant, and I’m pretty sure it loves me.

Tomato Sauce With Sweet Bay

About 4 tablespoons olive oil

2 pats of butter, about 1/2 tablespoon each

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 can Italian plum tomatoes (28 ounces, or equivalent amount of very ripe fresh tomatoes, blanched and skinned)

4 (or more) fresh bay leaves

Kosher salt

Heat the oil and one pat of butter in a large skillet over medium heat.

Add the onion and salt lightly, then cook, stirring every few minutes, until soft and golden.

Chop the tomatoes roughly — an easy way is to plunge kitchen shears into the opened can and hack away — and add them, the bay leaves and about a teaspoon of salt to the pan. Bring back to bubbling, turn heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, tasting and adding salt as needed.

Finish by stirring in the other pat of butter, and serve with pasta or gnocchi and grated Parmesan. Most people don’t chew on the bay leaves, but you can.