Redolent of Recipes Past: An Ode to the Bay Leaf
I think one of my favorite things about being a living, breathing human is time traveling. Largely thanks to our olfactory bulbs, we as humans possess an innate ability to relive snippets from yesteryear via evocative sensory experiences. Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. These varying methods of perception act as portals into the past —keys that somehow manage to unlock otherwise inaccessible moments that had been stored away and sealed in our memories just as we had been experiencing them in realtime.
Like most of us, I rarely have control over these brief jolts into the past. And, I'll admit, many of the moments I tend to recollect had initially passed rather insignificantly. But reliving them through a triggering scent or a familiar sound, however—if only for a millisecond—never fails to swell my heart to the painful point of bursting. Forced into retrospective nostalgia, my heart always aches for what was. Simpler times, happier times, warmer times. That day, that person, that meal. The way that those things had made me feel.
I'd imagine that for a lot of people, including myself, Autumn is an especially good period for transcending the constructs of time. Full of countless strong, seasonally unique aromas, it's impossible not to associate certain things with this time of year. As we welcome the winds of early October, cool in temperature and earthy in scent, I find myself already scrolling in search of Modest Mouse in my Spotify playlist. Something in the autumn air triggers a deep, annual longing for their twangy sound—a sound that, in turn, has the ability to instantly catapult me back to the chilly Fall mornings I had spent with my friend Matt on the way to school. As Isaac Brocks' slightly abrasive voice would spit expletives over shot speakers, together we'd speed down Route 81 in Matt's 1996 red Toyota Corolla, mugs of tea in one hand and whatever baked good his grandma had thrown into a plastic Tupperware in the other. Now, at twenty-three, Good News for People Who Love Bad News brings me to tears. I miss Matt, whom I see maybe once every year-and-a-half. I miss the limited scope of my seventeen-year-old self—capable only of living and thinking in the present—a privilege for sure.
As early October's unpredictable weather continues to turn, my subconscious memory jogs even further. No longer do I crave the tossed salads of summer, but instead, the thick, hearty soups and stews of my childhood. I'm reminded of my mom's mustard-colored Le Creuset pot simmering gently on the stovetop, its contents having already begun marinating hours prior to my return from school in the afternoon. Hungarian goulash, french onion soup, vegetarian chili—while certainly time-consuming, these dishes were cold-weather staples in our household. As I'd fight the wind up the driveway from where the bus would drop me each afternoon, it had always been the bay leaves that I'd smell first as I approached the house.
Though often overlooked, bay leaves can add incredible depth to soups, stews, braises, and sauces, only enhancing in flavor the longer they're left to steep. Uniquely fragranced, these dried aromatic leaves are almost tea-like in their ability to infuse any boiling liquid with rich, woodsy seasoning. Long ago had the scent of a softened bay leaf been filed away in my brain as an olfactory experience synonymous with autumn. The cloud of savory steam that wafts up from a bubbling pot of goulash, for example, can transport me back over a decade. Although I've maintained a veggie-filled pescatarian diet for almost as long, I'm always sure to incorporate bay leaves into my hearty vegetarian meals—perhaps for the memories and emotions they evoke more than anything else.
Chickpea and kale stew has become one of my own cold-weather staples, bay leaves and all. Below you'll find my own recipe. Buckle up and enjoy the time travel.
Chickpea and Kale Stew
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-28oz. can diced tomatoes (I typically use San Marzano tomatoes)
2-15oz. cans chickpeas (and their water!)
2-3 cups kale (this cooks down quite a bit)
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat oil in a medium-sized pot and cook onions until translucent. Add garlic, tomato paste, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper.
Add the tomatoes as well as the chickpeas and their liquid to the pot. If you prefer to omit the chickpea liquid altogether, substitute with water or vegetable stock in order to thin the mixture or to dilute the tomato. I'll often add some veggie stock in addition to the chickpea liquid to reach my desired consistency. Bring to a boil over moderately high heat.
Add the bay leaves and kale, lowering the heat to a simmer. Add fresh lemon juice and let simmer for about 20-30 minutes, although the longer the flavors marinate the better I believe it tastes. Add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.