Long before biblical times and across different civilizations, the leaves of the laurel tree have developed symbolic meaning in many areas- perhaps most familiar to us as a symbol of glory and achievement. To this day, students in Bologna and Padova, Italy wear a wreath of alloro (laurel, in Italian) on the day they formally receive their laurea (university degree). The English term “bay leaf” derives from the Latin word bacca, which means “berry” – an ancient reference to this tree’s inedible black berries. But, it is the leaves from this tree that add great taste to some well known Italian dishes.

Used mostly in dried form in hundreds of food preparations, bay leaves are one of the most popular spices throughout the world. In Italy, bay leaves, like rosemary, are free for the picking; laurel trees grow wild almost everywhere – including even in the milder parts of the northern regions, mostly around the three major lakes and Liguria.

Bay leaves are used to season many Italian meat and fish dishes and they add flavor to soups, sauces and stews. The flavor of bay leaves is deepened with steaming. Try them with vegetables, fish, seafood or chicken in a steamer. Bay leaves release their flavor during slow cooking, so the longer the better. Consider adding bay leaves to casseroles and slow cooker meals. Bay leaves also impart a great flavor to white, cream/cheese sauces (for example, béchamel sauce).

Bay leaves are also used in pickled vegetables, as well as in fish and meat marinades. The leaves’ spicy taste – which is attributed to their essential oil, cineole, blends beautifully in vegetable, fish and meat sauces for pasta dishes. Just one important reminder: Bay leaves always should be removed from all food preparations before serving. Why? Because they are as tough as old boots to the human palate, so avoid consuming them as part of the meal!

A question that is often asked: Are bay leaves poisonous?

The question derives from the fact that spreading whole or crushed bay leaves in pantries and kitchens have been found to keep cockroaches, meal moths and flies away. But this is mainly because of the aromatic oils present in the leaves. Household pests are repelled by these oils, which act as a deterrent for them. Bay leaves, however, are perfectly safe to use in your cooking.

Bay leaf oil is also available. Add 10-15 drops of bay leaf oil into a 16 ounce bottle of your shampoo. This solution is believed to be an effective cure for dandruff.

Taking a bath with water mixed with bay leaf oil can be very soothing for the senses. Dipping your hands and feet in bay leaf-water solution is believed to ease pain in those regions.

The aromatic properties of bay leaf oil make it suitable to be used as a room freshener. Pour a few drops of bay leaf oil into a dish, light a candle below this to gently heat the oil and vaporize it.

Poaching Fish

Sea bass is a fish found in areas of the Mediterranean and North Atlantic that is sought after by many sports fishermen. Sea bass is a quality protein source, with flaky white meat. The delicate flesh of sea bass stands up well to cooking methods, such as poaching, which refers to cooking in a liquid such as water, wine or stock. You can find sea bass at some grocery stores and most fish markets. Any sustainable white fish fillets will work in this recipe.

Directions

Place a pan or skillet on the stove over high heat. Add liquid such as white wine, vegetable or fish stock, water or a combination to total about two cups.

Add aromatic vegetables and herbs:

  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 leek, cut into 4 or 5 pieces,
  • 1 carrot, cut in thirds
  • 2-3 cherry tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf

Stir the vegetables around and let the liquid come up to a boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture gently for 10 minutes.

Season sea bass fillets with salt and pepper and place into the liquid, skin side up.

Cover the skillet and poach the fish for six to eight minutes, until the fillets are cooked through. The flesh should flake off easily.

Remove the fillets from the pan and serve them with rice and side vegetables.

Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Beans)

Ingredients

  • 5 cups low sodium chicken broth or water
  • 1½ cups dried white beans: cannellini
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cups Pomi brand chopped Italian tomatoes
  • 1 cup celery, chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 bay leaves
  • ½ cup small macaroni (ditalini), uncooked
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Dash crushed red pepper flakes
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated, for garnish
  • Basil leaves, optional

Directions

Place water and beans in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat for 3 minutes and remove from the heat. Cover and set aside for 1 hour.

Add the onion, tomatoes, celery, carrots, garlic and bay leaves. Mix well and bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce to simmer, cover, and cook until beans are tender (about 1½ hours). Stir frequently. Add macaroni and mix well. Cover and continue simmering until macaroni is tender (about 12 minutes).

Remove bay leaves before serving. Garnish with fresh basil, if desired. Serve with Parmesan cheese and crusty Italian bread.

Italian Style Pot Roast

I usually make this the day before serving. The flavor improves greatly sitting overnight in the refrigerator. Just heat up the next day and serve.

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 pounds beef pot roast (rump or chuck)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 1 large carrot, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 large celery stalk, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 medium red onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 cups medium-bodied Italian red wine
  • 1 26-ounce container Pomi brand chopped Italian tomatoes

Directions

Trim the fat from the meat and pat dry with paper towels. Season generously with the salt and pepper. Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, shimmering but not smoking, add the roast and cook, turning it a few times, until it is browned on all sides, 10-12 minutes. Transfer the meat to a platter.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the carrot, celery and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are golden brown and begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, 10-12 minutes. Add the garlic and parsley and stir about 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the wine and stir quickly, lifting up the browned caramelized vegetables that stick to the bottom of the pan. When the wine is almost all evaporated and thickly coats the vegetables, return the meat to the pan and turn it over a few times to coat in the sauce.

Raise the heat to high, adding the remaining wine, the bay leaves, the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, turning and basting the meat every half hour or so, until the meat is very tender and flakes away when pierced with a fork, 3-4 hours. Turn off the heat and let the roast sit in its juices for an hour.

Remove the meat from the pot and place it on a cutting board, covered loosely with aluminum foil. If the sauce is too thin, bring it to a fast boil and reduce it until it has a medium-thick consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Cut the meat into thick slices (it will probably fall apart) and place on a warm serving platter. Spoon the sauce over the meat and serve with pasta.

Penne with Chick Peas, Leeks and Artichoke Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 lb whole grain penne pasta
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 leeks cut in thin rounds
  • 1 can (19 oz) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 package frozen artichokes hearts, defrosted
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon Italian Parsley thinly sliced

Directions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Meanwhile cook the garlic over low heat in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the artichokes, season with salt and pepper and saute for two minutes.

Remove 1 ½ cups of boiling water from the pasta pot and add to the artichoke mixture. Reboil. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Process in the blender or use an immersion hand blender until smooth and set aside.

In the same skillet, gently heat remaining olive oil with leeks and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Add the chickpeas and cook for three minutes.

Cook pasta two minutes under the required cooking time on the package directions, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking liquid.

Add penne and the reserved pasta water to the chickpeas. Be sure to remove the bay leaf. Stir in the artichoke sauce and heat until warmed. Garnish with fresh Italian parsley before serving.

Sweet and Sour Cipollini Onions

Adapted from a recipe from Italian chef, Fabio Trabocchi. Cipollini are small Italian onions readily available in the supermarket.

This dish makes a great side dish for roasted pork.

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1/2 pounds cipollini onions, peeled
  • Strips of zest from 1 lemon
  • 4 fresh bay leaves
  • 3 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

In a large saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the water. Cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes. Take the pot off the heat and add the butter and the 1/2 cup of the balsamic vinegar. Return the saucepan to the heat and cook until the butter is melted.

Add the onions, lemon zest, bay leaves and chicken stock to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper and simmer over moderately low heat until the onions are very tender and glazed and the liquid is syrupy, about 1 1/2 hours. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper.

Prune and Olive Chicken

Prune and Olive Chicken Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup pitted prunes, halved
  • 8 small pimento stuffed green olives
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 (3 pound) whole chicken, cut into 8- 10 pieces, skin removed
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Directions

In a medium bowl combine the garlic, prunes, olives, capers, olive oil, vinegar, bay leaves, oregano, salt and pepper. Mix well. Spread mixture in the bottom of a 10×15 inch baking dish. Add the chicken pieces, stir and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Remove dish from refrigerator. Sprinkle brown sugar on top and pour white wine all around chicken.

Bake for 1 hour, spooning juices over chicken several times, as it is baking. Serve on a platter, pouring juices over the top, and garnish with fresh parsley.

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