Proving the point that Louisiana expats pine for the food culture they left behind (a theme in the intro chapter of Hungry for Louisiana), I’m doing an interview series featuring transplants nationwide who still miss the food, drink and culinary rituals of the Bayou State. Here are thoughts from my friend Suz Redfearn, an accomplished freelance journalist who left Louisiana for Washington, D.C., in 1998. Comments from her appear in the book.
Bay is a big part of Louisiana cuisine. You could make an argument it’s even more significant than cayenne pepper in terms of creating round, full flavor in so many of our emblematic dishes. Bay is what gives gumbo, jambalaya, red beans, countless soups and so many other one-pot dishes an herbaceous, sweet note. It plays well with everything from meats to vegetables to seafood. Fail to put it in certain dishes and something seems really amiss.
I have a very mature bay plant in my herb garden – it’s now more like a tree – and I frequently lop off the top growth. With our subtropical weather in South Louisiana, it grows fast enough for me to have to trim it twice a year. Here it is now – in December – with its little buddy lemon grass to the right.
After I trimmed it in September, I hung the fresh branches, laden with large, green leaves, in my outdoor washroom where it didn’t take long for them to dry. It’s pretty cool and dry out there. Commercial bay is dried flat, but I let mine dry the way it wants to. Sometimes that means curly and unruly.
Within a few days, I bring one branch into the kitchen, slide it into a tall vase and place the vase in the kitchen window. Several times a week, I reach up and snap off a few dried leaves and toss them in everything from butter beans to pot roast to spaghetti sauce. This week, it was homemade vegetable soup, heavy on the veggies, as you can see. Look how big those leaves get!
And jars of dried bay make great gifts!