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This year’s herb winner is…(drum roll) bay laurel

Bay laurel is the herb for 2009. Bet you didn’t know that! Neither did I. My husband and I registered for a seminar on the herb bay laurel and did not know exactly what we were getting into.

The seminar took place at White Oak Plantation in Baton Rouge, which is owned by the famous Cajun chef John Folse. He uses the house for weddings, parties and seminars.

Upon arriving, we were given a wonderful drink made with bay leaf and ginger. Recipe to follow. Next, we got our lecture on the herb and then a demonstration of several ways to use it in recipes. Samples were provided. They were really tasty. We had a three-course lunch, which included the bay laurel in all the food prepared. It turned out to be a great day and we learned much. The bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, Laurasceae), also known as true laurel, sweet laurel, laurel tree, Grecian laurel, laurel, or bay tree, is an aromatic evergreen tree or large shrub reaching 10-18 meters tall, native to the Mediterranean region. Bay laurel is the source of the bay leaves which are used for their flavor in cooking. It was also the source of the laurel wreath of ancient Greece, and therefore the expression of “resting on one’s laurels.” A wreath of bay laurels was given as the prize at the Pythian Games because the games were in honor of Apollo and the laurel was one of his symbols ever since his unsuccessful pursuit of Daphne. In the Bible, the sweet-bay is often an emblem of prosperity and fame. In Christianity it is said to symbolize the resurrection of Christ and the triumph of humanity thereby. It is also the source of the word baccalaureate (laurel berry), and of poet laureate.

Remedies made from the bay laurel are mainly used in the treatment of the disorders affecting the upper digestive tract and to ease all kinds of arthritic aches and pains affecting a person. The remedies made from the bay laurel have a tonic affect and have a settling effect on the stomach. The bay laurel used in cooking also aids in digestion and absorption of food in the stomach. This is why we use the bay laurel in cooking beans.

The soap industry also utilizes an essential oil obtained from the fruit of the bay laurel in many types of soaps. Bay laurel is very hardy and strong and is resistant to all sorts of plant pests and common plant diseases.

We have a bay laurel plant that I have had for years in a pot on our patio and I seem to pick some leaves nearly every day for cooking.

Bay is such an easy plant to grow—it will tolerate most soils, some drought and even temperatures down to minus-5 degrees Celsius. I never bring my potted plant inside in winter. We were given bay plants at the seminar and I plan to put mine in the ground in a planned herb garden.

Ginger Bay Punch

Ginger Bay Syrup:

4 cups water

2 cups sugar

1 6-inch fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced

4 fresh bay leaves (Laurus nobilis)

1 lime, sliced

Bring water and sugar to boil in a stainless steel saucepan. Reduce heat, add ginger and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, add bay leaves and lime slices. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes. Strain, allow to cool to room temperature, then pour into a glass container and refrigerate until needed.

Punch:

1 quart ginger bay syrup

1 quart limeade (frozen limeade prepared according to directions is fine)

1 quart pineapple juice (unsweetened)

2 cups lemonade (frozen, prepared according to directions, is fine)

1 quart sparkling water

Chill all ingredients. Stir first 4 ingredients together in a large punch bowl or other glass container. Just before serving, gently pour sparkling water down the side of the bowl. Stir gently with a ladle. If too strong, add more sparkling water.

If desired, you can make an ice mold to float in the punch. Fill an attractive metal container (something with a design, or a ring, is nice) one-third full of water. Place in freezer and allow to begin freezing. Remove and sprinkle small edible flowers (mint, lavender, basil, rosemary, or whatever you have available) and a few whole leaves of mint. Set in freezer for 10 minutes or so, then slowly add water to the two-thirds mark. Repeat the process, adding more flowers and herbs, filling container to the top. Using this method will prevent flowers and herbs from floating to the top. To unmold when completely frozen, dip into warm water, then turn upside down and slide into the punch bowl.

Orange Bay Shortbread

4 fresh bay leaves (or dried)

¾ pounds unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

zest of 1 medium orange

3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

Place one stick of butter in a small saucepan with four fresh bay leaves. Heat over medium fire until butter is melted and forming bubbles around the edge of the pan. Set heat as low as possible and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover pan, and allow to infuse several hours or overnight. Remove bay leaves, taking care to scrape off all the infused butter. Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together all the butter and 1 cup sugar until they are just combined. Add the zest. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter-and-sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together. Dump on a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into two equal portions and pat each into a 9-inch cake pan. Cover each with a sheet of plastic wrap and use a mini rolling pin to smooth the surface; sprinkle with sugar. Bake about 30-35 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Remove from pans and cut into wedges while hot. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Or roll the dough 1/2 –inch thick and cut with a cutter of your choice. Place the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Allow to cool to room temperature.