Field Notes 1.23.2023
are bay leaves BS? + what I'm cooking & eating lately
A few weeks ago someone I follow on Instagram (@timpostscomics) posted a comic "with the caption “so you’re telling me that this entire recipe hinges on whether I put this single leaf in or not”. The leaf in question is a lone bay leaf.
A few days later, a post from Delish popped up in my feed about Ina Garten not being sure bay leaves make a difference in a dish. I was beginning to wonder if I was being punked, and found myself screaming at my phone, “Ina!!!!! Of course they make a difference!!! You should know this!!!!”
I’m an ardent lover of bay leaves, and now very suspect of Ina Garten. I also once read that she doesn’t deviate from a recipe, and finds it hard to cook without them. When it comes to relationship goals, Ina and Jeffrey are my mentors but my interest in Ina may stop there, though I do love her presence and think she makes cooking feel very approachable.
One other verifiable fan of bay leaves is the chef Frank Prisinzano, owner of one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, ‘lil frankies. Frank’s approach to cooking is that it’s about methods and not recipes. One of his methods is a sticky garlic marinara sauce. It would be easy to get distracted by all the nuggets of smashed, deeply browned cloves of garlic swimming in a pool of red sauce but the real star of this dish is the humble bay leaf. It is what undoubtedly makes the sauce sing.
A few weeks ago I made my lentil soup recipe from Homemade with Love (this recipe is a similar one but made in the slow cooker). I tend to cook this soup from muscle memory, and while it was simmering I had the nagging feeling I’d forgotten something. I went over the ingredients in my mental checklist, and chalked my feeling up to a busy work day and too much to balance.
We sat down to dinner that night, and while the soup was very good, it tasted different than usual. I couldn’t figure out why. It was only when I was transferring the leftover soup to a container that it hit me–I’d forgotten to add the bay leaf. Proof that the bay leaf does make a difference! Does forgetting it or willingly omitting it render a dish inedible? No. But I’d argue adding it is the culinary equivalent of putting a bow on a nicely wrapped gift. Bay leaf is that extra little finishing touch for soups and stews.
Do yourself a favor and skip the jars of dried bay leaves in the spice section, and head straight to the produce aisle for the fresh leaves. They will keep months in the fridge, and add way more flavor than the dried leaves. Maybe this is why bay leaves are so underrated. Perhaps cooks–home cooks and professionals alike, are just buying the wrong kind of bay leaves? Ina if you’re reading this, I’m happy to come over and do a side by side taste test.
Other things I’m enjoying lately include making this vegetarian stew in my online cooking class yesterday, finally starting Abbott Elementary, and getting back to running on my little elliptical . I find myself cooking the same things on repeat lately since workdays have been bleeding into worknights. Last week consisted of homemade pizza, burritos (I made a big batch that we could heat and eat throughout the week), and shredded BBQ beef with homemade crispy oven fries (this recipe is gem from 2014 that I just transferred into my archives here).
Oh, and there was an amazing meal at Via Carota. Some of the best octopus I’ve ever eaten and the panisse left me speechless, so perfectly crisp on the outside and creamy in the center. Without a doubt, they would be one of my death bed requests.
I decided to round out this month’s cooking classes with another challah class since the last one sold out pretty quickly. There’s a few more slots left, so click here for more details and to register. My next challah class after that will be in March or April, so now is the time to register if you don’t want to wait that long (and it’s the way to get my challah recipe, too!).
Hope the week is gentle for us all. Be well, and remember to be kind.
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So funny. I used to think that about bay leaves too--we grew up with an ancient jar of them, I really think they had zero taste, just a weird ritualistic thing I was told to put in the pot and later remove. Now, like you, I buy them fresh and keep them in the fridge until they are used up and even if they get dry, they are still potent. Sometimes I find the flavor TOO strong and remove them sooner.