Laurus nobilis “the true bay”

Bay Laurel tree

Laurus nobilis plants are the source of culinary bay, a handsome tree that grows throughout the Mediterranean. This herb has a flavor and aroma that is mildly spicy and warm, and seems to pull other savory flavors together in soups, stews and sauces. Usually, the tough leaf is left whole and should be removed before serving. Sometimes you will see recipes calling for 1 Turkish Bay leaf or 1/2 a California Bay leaf. Turkish bay is Laurus nobilis, sometimes called Grecian bay, Mediterranean bay, or true bay, is the plant of cookery and myth

California Bay “Umbellularia californica” is a different plant entirely, and while the leaves have a similar texture the flavor properties are quite different. The flavor and fragrance of California bay is quite pungent and harsh and I never cook with it. Both plants are growing at my home and I occasionally pick a leaf of each, crush and smell in wonderment as to why some food writers continue to instruct “use one Turkish Bay leaf or 1/2 California Bay leaf”. Julia Child, a native of California, was disdainful of California Bay for cooking and in my talks I often say if it wasn’t good enough for Julia it’s not good enough for us.

True Bay, is native to the Mediterranean basin. Italian restaurants often use containerized Bay plants to create outdoor walls and extend seating. Bay, when grown in the ground is hardy to Zone 7. Plants grow in full sun to half shade. Give them a light fertilizing and regular watering the first season and once they are established they can pretty much fend for themselves. Evergreen trees may eventually reach 15′ in height. I recommend regular pruning. The tree in this photo is at our nursery. It grew too large for the assigned space and every three years we cut it to the ground and it happily sprouts from the stump to produce a nice oval bush in a few months.

Our nursery and others offer bay plants for sale. Grow as a single tree, a shrub or planted as a hedge. Because it is such a useful herb and tolerates some shade it is one to add to the garden.

Unsweetened Pumpkin Tart – “Citrouillat”

It was in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook that I first encountered a very old recipe for a savory, unsweetened pumpkin pie. While this tart contains a bit of butter it’s far less rich than Ms. Toklas’s with a cup of heavy cream and rich crust.
Last night we cooked a magnificent 8# Queensland squash and of course there was a good amount left to enjoy. Any of your favorite winter squash or pumpkins may be used for this pie. When your squash is precooked just scoop out 3 1/2 cups and add small chunks to the onions and herbs. When pressed for time use a conventional pie crust or or even a dozen sheets of filo as I plan to do today. This recipe is listed on our http://www.nicholsgardennursery website.

When using filo sheets, remember they only need the lightest buttering with a combination of melted butter and olive oil. A 1″ pastry brush gives you good control. Since I’m using a circular pan I’ll offset each piece a few inches so the entire pan is covered. Then the top sheets will be handled the same way and rolled up at the edge. A photo will follow but I’m off to the kitchen.
Serves 6 – 8

Pastry
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons dry yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
3 tablespoons butter, melted or olive oil 1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt

Add yeast to lukewarm water with 1/4 cup flour. Stir and let sit in a mixing bowl until bubbly, about ten minutes. Mix 2 tablespoons butter and egg into yeast mixture. Gently add flour and salt to the yeast mixture. It should have the consistency of a soft dough. Do not knead because you do not want to develop the gluten. Form into two balls one slightly smaller than the other. Roll out the larger piece and place in an oiled 10” springform pan or ceramic tart dish. Brush with some of remaining 1 tablespoon melted butter. Cover loosely with a damp kitchen towel. Set dough for top crust aside until you are ready to fill the tart.

Pumpkin Filling

2 pounds pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and diced or 3 1/2 cups 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/4 dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or 1 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons instant rice or 1/4 cup cooked rice
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese

Sprinkle pumpkin or squash with salt and cook in a steamer for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain steamed pumpkin in a colander while onion is cooking. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet set on medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until onion is tender and translucent about 5 minutes. Add pumpkin, thyme, sage, and pepper. Adjust heat to medium high and staute, stirring occasionally until pumpkin dice barely begin to break apart. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Stir in rice and cheese and place filling in shell. Lightly roll out the top crust and cover, pinching the edges well together, brush with remaining butter. Cut a few slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes on the medium rack until golden brown. Let sit on a cooling rack for ten minutes before serving. Serve warm or cooled as a picnic dish.

Is This Really “Organic”?

Today, I read that “organic” made it onto a list of over used words. This product called “The Batter Blaster” bills itself as organic, certified by the USDA. Packaged in an aerosol can that serves eight, this seems like the over packaging that is exactly opposite to the resource conserving spirit of the organic movement.batterblaster We are concerned about environmentally sound, production, distribution and packaging. It’s New Year’s Eve and as I think through the ways that I can be a greener gardener and cook, the new word “locavore” comes to mind. In our area several church groups adopted the hundred mile diet for a month. The grocery stores that offer local produce all year are favored by many shoppers. For me it means growing what we can, buying at the Farmers Market, and looking at the labels of what I purchase. I don’t expect to find everything locally grown, but when I do find it I can support it with my dollars. Making an effort is a good first step, growing more of our own fresh food has rich rewards.

Making pancakes was an early cooking activity for our children. They stirred the batter and learned the perfect consistency. It was fun to watch the bubbles form and a perfect flip was so satisfying. I enjoyed seeing their competency and confidence in the kitchen and they still make pancakes. A pressurized can may possibly be too cute and enticing for a young child and is it really cooking?

Christmas Menu 2007

The Christmas menu changes a bit every year but over time ours has evolved to everyone having the opportunity to make what they like with a little attention to balance. This means vegetables and some dishes not too full of butter, cheese or sugar. When my sister said she wanted winter squash, I knew this would be easy. Our back porch has a terrific selection of winter squash. I’ve been baking squash every few days and using it in new ways, most recently, adding spoonfuls to quesadillas and black bean burritos. If you too have a surfeit of squash I figure you can use a few recipe ideas.

I see many recipes calling for peeled and cubed squash, a process I find hard on the hands. I suggest placing the winter squash in a 350 degree oven for twenty to thirty minutes. Remove from heat, cool then peel and cube. The squash will hold together in cubes but the rind is easily peeled away without risk of cutting a finger or feeling you’ve arm wrestled when you finish. You are simply cooking in two stages and the total cooking time stays about the same.

Here is our tentative menu. Not everyone has decided what they will fix and some of us can’t stop with only one dish. It will be a big family gathering and we’ll cook and eat our way through the day. This is the essence of a family holiday, good food, good company and good conversation. This is a menu of seasonal foods.

Christmas Menu 2007
Turkey, Gravy, & Dressing
2 Cranberry Sauces fresh & cooked (my sister’s family likes fresh, we favor cooked)
Green Salad with Pecans & Oranges and shallot dressing
Parsnip Pear Puree from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook
Potatoes Mashed with garlic & rosemary
Creme Brulee
Steamed Gingerbread & Orange Pudding with whipped cream,
Cookies & Fruitcake
Crudités & olives pre dinner snacks
Squash with Onions & Almonds modified from The Scent of Orange Blossoms: Sephardic Cuisine from Morocco
coffee & tea
Parsley puree “Mark Bittman NY Times archives” A vivid green puree of parsley and olive oil
Wine & Sparkling Cider

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I’ve been making this for my own use and as gifts for several years. Vanilla extract is easy to make, richly flavorful, and fragrant. Use one vanilla bean per each four to five oz. bottle. Split the bean in half lengthwise and then chop into ½ inch pieces. Stuff these pieces into your bottle and top off vanilla extractwith full strength vodka or brandy. Cap and let sit for 2 to 4 weeks. Every few days give it a little shake. You will love this vanilla. When a third of the extract is used top the bottle off with more vodka or brandy. Alcohol efficiently extracts the essence of vanilla and makes what herbalists would call a tincture.

I find a securely capped glass container is the best. Corked bottles don’t seem to work as well, perhaps because they breathe a little. Many commercial extracts contain a touch of caramel coloring don’t be concerned if your extract doesn’t turn a dark brown. Store in a cool dark place. The flavor increases with time as long as you don’t remove the vanilla bean.

Vanilla comes from an orchid native to Mexico, Guatemala and parts of Central America, Vanilla planifolia. The flower is fairly inconspicuous but each one produces a long slender seed pod on the plants’ 10’ vines. These are the beans, which are harvested, sweated, cured and dried to develop the unique flavor.

Vanilla is not only used in our favorite desserts but for perfumery and aromatherapy. Shalimar perfume contains vanilla as do many modern fragrances, usually incorporating vanilla into the name. Aromatherapists tell us the fragrance soothes and calms. I once knew a woman whose husband was so fond of the scent of vanilla that she took to dabbing a bit behind the ears when she was in the kitchen.

Salad Greens & Edible Flowers

Salad with Edible Flowers

As we move into cooler weather I see our salad garden is a bit uneven. We have lots of greens for cooking, mesclun, racdiccio and arugula but sometimes I begin to crave a crunchy salad that’s packed with flavor and color. So I broke down and purchased some lovely local Romaine lettuce. The garden pantry contributed radiccio, which we cut at the soil line instead of pulling because the plants often produce a second head.
In spite of some near frosty nights we still have some of my favorite edible flowers. Nasturtiums add color, a wonderful fresh peppery bite and the anise hyssop echoes the tarragon with it’s own sweet anise flavor. Each anise hyssop flower head is actually dozens of tiny flowers that I stripped from the stem. Mild flavored calendula petals are twisted away from the head and sprinkled like confetti over the greens.

1 head Romaine lettuce
1 small head radicchio
1 rounded tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
(if fresh tarragon is unavailable use a small handful of parsley)

Dressing:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 small clove garlic, minced or pressed

Edible Flower Mixture
Nasturtiums
Calendula
Anise Hyssop

I gathered about one cup edible flowers not packed, this was about eight nasturtium blossoms, 2 flower heads of anise hyssop, and half a dozen calendula flowers. Always use flowers that are not sprayed with chemicals.

Rinse, dry and tear salad greens into bite size pieces. The tarragon leaves can remain whole. Mix dressing ingredients and toss with greens. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the flowers over the salad greens, do not toss and serve. Serves 2-4.