It is that time of the year when many of us are thinking about preparing a feast for extended family or worrying over what to bring to a potluck with friends or coworkers. Many dishes fancy and plain are improved by the addition of herbs. In any event, one does not need to channel Julia Child to make and use a bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs cooked with other foods and removed before they are eaten.
The classic bundle is comprised of three sprigs of parsley, one of thyme and a bay leaf. A sprig of rosemary may be added or substituted for thyme. One may include a slender slice of orange or lemon peel. Sometimes, the herbs are laid in a piece of celery before tying the bundle. The thrifty French use leek foliage instead of string. Leaving a length of string from the knot facilitates removing the bundle from the soup, stew or poultry cavity.
If you are using dried herbs rather than fresh, one can make a sachet, a little bag, to hold them. Cheesecloth is the perfect material for bag construction. For a classic mix, combine one tablespoon of parsley, one teaspoon of thyme, two or three peppercorns and one bay leaf. Place these herbs in the center of a square of the cloth and tie it like a hobo’s bag. Fans of Bridget Jones know that the thread or string needs to be white or colorfast.
I have a delicious recipe for a marinated pot roast which calls for one teaspoon of peppercorns. Long
ago I learned that getting every piece of pepper out of the sauce was a losing battle that could result in an unfortunate dental emergency. I now corral peppercorns in a tea infuser for safe and easy retrieval. The same trick works well for cloves when mulling cider. The infuser works well for smaller amounts of herbs if you don’t have cheesecloth.
The cook may put together any combination of herbs. The key to success lies in balancing the amounts used so that robust flavors do not overwhelm milder ones. Robust herbs include garlic, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme. On the milder side we have basil, bay, chervil, dill, marjoram, and parsley. In the examples above, one uses three times more parsley than thyme or rosemary so that the parsley is not blotted out by the others.
Other flavor profiles may also be used. Over the holidays we enjoy sweet spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in wassail, cider and even warm wine. I have found that leaving the spices in the drink after it is warm results in the punch tasting more like mouthwash than a sweet treat. Having them bagged together make them easy to remove.
Using a bouquet garni may seem like extra effort, but it does make quick work of removing inedible bits before serving. Thyme, rosemary and oregano all have woody stems which diners would have to fish from the food, if not their teeth. Bay and sage leaves must also be removed along with pesky peppercorns.
I made my first bouquet garni sachet with a group of herb-loving friends. We are always interested in learning to use the herbs we grow and had a great time assembling our little bags. I have found this technique to be practical as well as easy and hope you will too.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trussing it up with a bay leaf and inserting it into the nether orifice of deceased poultry.