Occasionally I’ll hear from a reader asking for a chart showing the correct use for herbs and spices. This makes me chuckle. If only they could see me when I make soup. Sure I read the recipe, but I don’t let that squelch my creativity. The flavorings called for in the list of ingredients are just recommendations, not a do-or-die formula. Half the time I don’t even bother to rummage in my kitchen drawer for measuring spoons.
That may sound like culinary anarchy, but there really is method in my madness. I use a nifty rule-of-thumb used by cooks for centuries known as “bouquet garni.” Bouquet garni (pronounced boh-KAY gahr-NEE) is a French term that translates as “handful of herbs.” The basic formula is a trio of herbs, usually bay leaf, thyme, and parsley.
If the threesome of bay leaf, thyme, and parsley seems a little tame, change it. The bouquet garni trio isn’t carved in stone. You can substitute a range of herbs for either the thyme or the parsley. Most herbs come from two families. Thyme is a member of the oregano family of square-stemmed herbs: basil, marjoram, rosemary, sage, and savory. Parsley is part of the family of herbs with basal leaves and a thick taproot: cilantro, celery, chervil, dill, and fennel. To make bouquet garni, all you need to do is pick one from the oregano family, one from the parsley family, and add bay leaf.
This simple seasoning rule of thumb is used beyond the borders of France. Italians prefers parsley, chervil, and bay leaf, with perhaps a bit of marjoram or basil. The Spanish cook adds garlic, of course. Hungarians include green pepper and caraway seeds. The Danes go wild and combine bay leaf, thyme, parsley, marjoram, lemon peel, mace, cloves, and peppercorns. Now that’s flavor!
You can make bouquet garni from fresh or dried herbs. When using fresh herbs, add the bay leaves to your herb sprigs, tie them together with kitchen twine or wrap them in cheesecloth, and put into the soup pot “as is”. If you’re using dried herbs, you can put them in a wire mesh ball or crush them and add directly to the pot. When the soup is done, toss the bouquet garni or the contents of the wire mesh ball out.
So now you know my little seasoning secret. Substituting one herb for another is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Even when the measuring spoons stay in the drawer, I’m not committing culinary suicide. With the time-tested bouquet garni guideline, I can season my soup with confidence.