Feedbag: Are Bay Leaves The Shane Battier Of Foodstuffs?

Welcome to the Feedbag, where all the dumb questions about food, drink, cooking, eating, and accidental finger removal you've been embarrassed to ask can finally receive the berating they goddamn deserve. Also: answers. Send all your even-vaguely-food-related questions to albertburneko@gmail.com. All of them.

RMJ=H:

Not to go all Grantland on you, but is adding bay leaves more "Bill Wennington" or "Jud Buechler" to a great stew or soup? Doesn't seem critical, but I do it.

I've thought long and hard about this question—about how the bay leaf fits into the metaphorical NBA team of, say, your Sunday tomato sauce—and I've come to the conclusion that the bay leaf is neither Bill Wennington (a generic, easily replaceable, multidimensional-in-an-extremely-mediocre-sort-of-way spare part carried to glory by superior teammates) nor Jud Buechler (a generic, easily replaceable, utterly one-dimensional spare part carried to glory by superior teammates). No, the bay leaf is, very precisely, Shane Battier from 2005 to 2008, before he began his decline into the infuriatingly passive-aggressive, intermittently useful professional basketball troll currently flinging open corner threes into the wrong zip code for the Miami Heat.

Like prime Battier, the bay leaf's contributions pass mostly unnoticed by the casual observer and resist easy quantification, except in the big-picture sense—the team's win-loss record in Battier's case; holy shit this food tastes fucking great in the bay leaf's. Like prime Battier, the bay leaf does not seem to do anything special and yet can't be replaced; like prime Battier, its absence is not marked in any dramatic, specific way, but rather by everything just kind of generally not being as successful as when it was around. And, as with even the prime-iest of prime Battier, if you're treating bay leaf like a star player, your shit is going to suck donkey-ass.

Also, like Battier (probably), crushed bay leaves are known to release vapors that are toxic to insects.

I think of bay leaves as belonging in a loose category with anchovies and a few other ingredients which, in moderate use, have the effect of making nearly any dish to which they're added taste better, seemingly without making that dish taste like themselves. That is to say, you can add a couple of bay leaves to the pot when you're making, say, chicken stock, let them simmer in there for hours upon hours, and at the end of the process, the stock won't taste noticeably of bay leaves, but it will somehow taste better—noticeably better—than it would if you hadn't included the bay leaves. How does that work? I have no idea. It probably has something to do with the weird, distracting cranial folds. On Shane Battier. Which (might) have some metaphorical relationship to the bay leaf. I have this analogy totally under control.

Boy, this sure has been one illuminating and not-at-all-forced-and-self-indulgent cross-pollination of sports and culture discussions!

[founds ringlardner.com]

[adds Shane Battier to beef stew]

[goes to prison]

Steve:

I've recently moved into a new apartment and while the kitchen is equipped with a good oven and stove, they're electric, and take a really long time to heat up or cool down. They eventually get plenty hot but it can take a lot of time to just boil a pot of water.

Any advice on how to approach cooking/preparation?

Ugh, man, electric ranges can be the goddamn worst. I have one, too—worse yet, one of those fucking glass cooktop jobs that looks great for the first 20 minutes after you purchase it, and then you spill a droplet of water on it and it never looks like anything but a burnt-out schoolbus ever again. As if it's not enough that an electric range takes 14 hours to bring a cup of tepid water to a boil, then the thing has the gall to fucking switch off for five seconds at the moment the first bubble breaks the surface, just long enough for the water to dip back to sub-boiling temperatures and cause you to instantly and permanently regret literally everything that has ever happened.

And then there's the part when, after you're finally done boiling your pasta, the cooking surface remains hot enough to fuse hydrogen nuclei for the ensuing three months, and you absentmindedly stick your hand out for support as you bend down to adjust your sock and the next thing you know you're in the market for a hook and a parrot.

Sadly, wrenching your electric range out of the wall, lashing a screaming Gregg Doyel to its surface, and sinking both of them into the Mariana Trench is usually not an option (or, at least, not one that my legal counsel will allow me to publicly endorse), so you're stuck with that thing until you're ready to move into a home not designed and built by sadists. You really can't improve your fate in any dramatic way, but you can take a couple of small steps to make using your electric range and oven marginally less the most annoying thing in the world.

With your range, you can speed up boiling times by:

  • 1) Turning the burner on while your pot is still filling up with water in the sink;
  • 2) Filling your pot with the hottest water your faucet can produce; and
  • 3) Clamping a tight lid on the pot while it heats up on the stove and not removing it until the water is at a furious boil.

That's not going to make the biggest difference in the world, but hey, maybe you'll be able to get some noodles cooked in less time than it takes the sun to swell and extinguish all life on earth.

As for the oven, the smart thing to do is to start preheating it earlier. Like, five days ago. Sorry.

Brandon:

How would you make a balsamic vinegar reduction/sauce? I have a few good flavored balsamic vinegars that would go great on some ice cream or other delicious dessert treat. Or maybe even on fish, because that shit is delicious.

Brandon, there's no magic to this. Small saucepot, bunch of balsamic vinegar, maybe a small pinch of sugar or a drizzle of honey, then heat and patience. Bring it to a low boil, then down to a simmer, then let it go for a half-hour or so. It'll thicken some as it cooks, and then more when you remove it from the heat, and, yeah, it's gonna taste really good. Give it a shot. To make it extra delicious, try sticking a dried Shane Battier in there, too.

Bay leaf. A bay leaf. Christ.

Grant:

My stir fry is always mushy and I have baked-on anthracite on the bottom of my wok. So I guess two questions, one, what am I doing wrong, and two, does a middle age white guy with a cheap electric range have any business having a wok?

If your stir-fry is consistently coming out mushy, instead of crispy and fresh-tasting, I'd guess one of the following things is happening. Either:

  • A) You are cooking over too low a temperature;
  • B) You are letting all your ingredients hang out in there together for too long; or
  • C) You are stir-frying oatmeal

Try this (working quickly): Heat the holy hell out of your wok; add no more than a tablespoon or two of sturdy oil, followed by your aromatics and spices; as soon as you can smell that stuff, add the meat and keep it moving as it cooks for just a minute or two; with a slotted spoon, remove the meat to a nearby bowl; add the veggies and sauce (erring on the side of too little sauce, as opposed to too much), toss them, then slap a cover on just for 20 seconds or so; put the meat back in the wok with the veggies and shit, give it all one or two hearty tosses, then get it the hell out of there.

But wait, you're saying: That's what I already do! Sure it is. But this time, don't be a weenie about the heat, and be militant about working quickly. I might get pilloried for this, but stir-fried veggies shouldn't really be cooked. They should be heated, and maybe, here and there, browned on their edges, but they shouldn't be cooked. Get them out of the wok long before they have a chance to actually cook. The entire production shouldn't take more than 5 or 6 minutes. If you can stick to that schedule, and if you aren't using too much sauce, and if you're serving the resulting stir-fry immediately, you should be fine.

Unless you are stir-frying oatmeal, in which case you can go straight to hell.

Send your Feedbag questions to albertburneko@gmail.com.

Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.

Image by Jim Cooke.