Fresh herbs are beautiful, fragrant, and vivacious, but they lose their looks and flavour when left simmering in pots of soup or roasting with braised meat dishes. Losing their flavour is kind of the whole point — they are, after all, losing it to your dish — but the look and texture of soggy, heat-withered herbs is unappealing, as is fishing out little stems and bits from a pot of steaming liquid. Luckily, there is a very elegant, French solution: The bouquet garni (or “garnished bouquet”).
These little bundles of herbs are used near constantly in French cooking, so much so that you can buy them, dried and pre-tied, in nearly any French grocery store. (I brought some back from France a few years ago as souvenirs and everyone who received one was appropriately charmed.) But you don’t have to go to France to avail yourself of the bouquet garni; like most things French, the fancy-sounding-to-average-ears name belies a very simple manoeuvre. Just tie a bunch of herbs together with some kitchen twine. There. You now have a bouquet garni. (Sometimes people tie up dried herbs in a little bit of cheesecloth to make a sachet, but I like prefer to bundle.)
You can use any herbs you like, though the combination of parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf is considered classic. Grab about five sprigs of fresh parsley, two sprigs of fresh thyme, and a single bay leaf, then tie it all together with twine and chuck it in your soup, gravy, sauce, or braise. If you’re looking to mix it up and supplement the classic lineup, then tarragon, chervil, savoury, marjoram, or any herbs you happen to have growing in your garden will work beautifully. You can also add strips of lemon, orange, or lime zest, some fresh ginger, or a bit of a vegetable, such as a celery stalk, green onion, or piece of carrot.
You can also tweak your bouquet to better suit your meal: My Thanksgiving bouquet garni, for example, contains a mixture of sage, parsley, rosemary, and thyme. You can also make bouquet garni for beverages and syrups — just add your bundle of herbs to a pot of water, bring it to a boil, simmer for 15 minutes, then add the sugar and stir until it dissolves. Let steep for at least an hour, then remove the bouquet and use the syrup to flavour your lemonade, tea, or cocktail. Lavender and rosemary are a good place to start, but don’t sleep on bay leaf. Bay leaves don’t get nearly enough play in beverages and syrups.
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