A burning, bruised bay leaf

This evening, I tried braising chicken. I’ve never really thought about “braising.” I’ve browned…and baked. I’ve baked until something browns. I’ve never “braised.” This month’s issue of Bon Appetit challenged me to braise with an oh-so-tempting recipe, “Portuguese Chicken.” Since I’m 3/4 Portuguese, I couldn’t resist. My great grandparents immigrated from the Azores, so despite my time in Lisbon last summer, I didn’t come close to my family roots given how far they were off the coast. Given that this dish focuses on chicken and not fish (specifically, sardines), my guess is that it’s a take on a mainland dish.

My point about the “burning, bruised bay leaf” is that I never really thought about the flavors and scents that bay leaves comprise. I’ve always used them dried in soups and stews. I wasn’t even sure fresh bay leaves would be available at my tiny, local Safeway. But they were.

To bruise an herb means to pound it a little until the juices move around and the scent starts to flow. I bruised the bay leaf with my kitchen mallet, then smelled it, then was carried away. I invited my husband to take a whiff. Then I took more whiffs, and more, until I realized that my nose was on fire and my eyes were watering. Citrusy, peppery, smokey smells emanate from the bruised herb, but it’s almost intoxicating and profoundly hard to resist. It’s a little like albacore topped with mirin and dipped in wasabi-blasted soy sauce; it’s sweet and delightful and dangerous all at the same time. I couldn’t resist it, yet I couldn’t tolerate it. Mostly, I couldn’t wait to taste the result.

The point of the bay leaves, along with several of the other ingredients, is that they give the illusion of bitterness. Seriously, a whole can of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, white wine. A little bitter, right? But it is oh, so, sweet…with tawny Port, roasted red peppers, pearl onions, prosciutto, wow. Honestly, it was an amazing blend of sweetness and fruitiness. Two of the kiddos had friends over, and both of the friends, as well as our daughter, really enjoyed it. It was THAT sweet and fruity and lovely. Even the youngest (12), with a penchant toward quesedillas, hot dogs and pizza, tested it out when he saw all the others digging in.

You’ve gotta try this dish. And while you’re at it, put on some Fado. Try the Story of Fado (Portugal). We really love this throaty, bluesy, smoky sound. It’s even more amazing in a throaty, bluesy, smokey lounge in Lisbon at one in the morning.

2 thoughts on “A burning, bruised bay leaf

  1. I was looking up on the internet on how to bruise a bay leaf and I happen to come across this website. It just so happens that I was making the same Portuguese chicken recipe from Bon Appetit’s February issue you mentioned on your post. You are right this recipe is amazing. By the way, don’t try to make the best-ever brownie recipe from the Bon Appetit front cover. They were the worst brownies I have ever made.

  2. What a small world – I was looking up the same thing for the same recipe too! Even smaller world, I had also just read an article on the Azores in Afar magazine the same day that put it on my must-see travel list. Hope you get the chance to go, One Girl Cooking, it looks amazing!

    The chicken was very good, but I must admit, the bones were kind of a pain. Next time around, we may just use boneless chicken pieces so we can spend less time picking and more time enjoying that delicious sauce.

    Thanks for your help while I made my chicken!

    @V Smith: I must politely, but vehemently, disagree with you about the brownies. I’m not even a big brownie fan (I made them more for my husband), but these were to die-for! The moist, fudgy texture and caramel-nutty flavor turned my feelings about brownies around.

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