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Grim's Grub: Using this herb is a definite sign of wisdom

It's hard to put a finger on what some ingredients do for our food.

Bay Leaves.jpg
Bay leaves

Ancient Roman emperors and heroes were often depicted with a wreath of leaves in a half circlet around the top of their head.

This wreath of laurels was a sign of wisdom or accomplishments. The practice hails back to the Greek story of the deity Apollo and the dryad Daphne, daughter of Peneus, another deity.

After upsetting Eros, also known as Cupid, the deity of love "cursed" Apollo by shooting him with an arrow to make him enamored with Daphne. Not satisfied with his handiwork, Eros also shot Daphne, but with a lead arrow that ensured Daphne would never fall for Apollo.

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In the face of his unwanted attention, Daphne fled Apollo to the river Ladon. Apollo was in close pursuit. Daphne beseeched her father, Peneus, to save her, and he responded by turning her into a laurel tree. Apollo became sad to find her transformed. Daphne, having pity on him, dropped upon his head a wreath of her leaves. He kept the wreath as a reminder of the prize he could never win.

Laurel wreaths became a symbol of the emperor. In addition, the leafy crown became a vaunted prize in contests between poets and athletes, akin to Olympic medals during the ancient Olympic games. They were considered a sign of wisdom, intelligence and accomplishments and a recognition of a person's worthiness.

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Thanks to the honor of this prize, those who work hard enough to be considered worthy of rest are said to "rest on their laurels." Those who wore laurel wreaths had proven themselves.

Around this same time, Greeks used laurel in cooking. The berries, or nuts, of the laurel were dried and used as a seasoning. Most kitchens won't have this spice on hand, but almost every well-stocked kitchen will have a short jar of dried leaves. This spice is known as the "bay laurel" or simply "bay leaf."

It's hard to pinpoint what bay leaves do for a recipe. Some question whether they do anything at all, but try cooking white rice in two batches, one with bay leaves and one without. You will almost certainly notice there's something different. You might not be able to describe it, but it's there.

Some gourmands describe the added flavor as mildly minty, peppery, resinous like pine and even a touch bitter. Like some other ingredients, the bay leaf humbly elevates the flavor of other ingredients in a way that you are never too sure if it's doing anything at all.

But seasoned cooks know it's just wise to never forget the bay leaf, like a winner.

Venison Stew

  • 1/4 pound diced, fatty bacon
  • 1 medium onion or two shallots, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons lard
  • 1 1/2- to 1 2/3-pound venison roast, cubed
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons tomato puree
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 pound mushrooms, whole or cut to the size of grapes
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1 2/3 cups venison, beef or vegetable stock
  • 2 teaspoons juniper berries
  • 4 bay leaves (or 2 fresh)
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme

In a soup pot over medium heat, saute the bacon and onions in the lard gently, until the onions have begun to turn transparent. Remove the bacon and onions but leave the oils.
Add the venison to the pot a little at a time. Allow one side to brown, then turn the venison. Attempt to brown all sides. Once done, stir in the garlic, puree and pepper. Next, sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir. Return the bacon and onions, then add the mushrooms. If you are using more delicate mushrooms, wait to add them until after you have added the stock and wine to prevent them breaking apart in the thicker paste.

Add the red wine, stock, juniper berries, bay leaves and thyme. Bring the stew to a simmer and cover. Continue to simmer, covered, for approximately 1 1/2 hours.

At this point, check the thickness of the broth. If it is the desired thickness, remove the bay leaves and any herb stalks, and season with salt to taste.

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I like this made into miniature pot pies. It may also be baked into one large pot pie using standard pie crust.

Bay Scented Potatoes

Modified from deliciousmagazine.co.uk

  • About 2 pounds of small, waxy potatoes
  • 6 tablespoons mayonnaise (or 4 tablespoons olive oil)
  • 6 fresh bay leaves, torn if too large
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place all potatoes in a large bowl and put 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise or olive oil over the potatoes. Mix the potatoes until they are all coated. The mayo will likely stick better to the potatoes while providing a very neutral flavor.
Place the potatoes on a large baking tin that is either coated in nonstick spray or lined with nonstick baking paper. Roast for 30-40 minutes or until tender.

Use a masher, large mug or similar tool to flatten each potato while fresh from the oven. They don't need to be thin, but they should crack open. Add the bay leaves and dollop the remaining mayo over the potatoes. Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste and return the potatoes to the oven for 20 minutes.

Toss the potatoes once more and roast for 10 more minutes, or until they become crisp and golden around the edges.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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