Occasionally I’ll hear from a reader asking for a chart showing the correct use for herbs and spices. This always makes me chuckle. I have a sudden vision of a cook in a white lab coat and pearls, reading an officially sanctioned spice chart. With trembling fingers, she extracts precisely one fourth of a teaspoon of seasoning from a sterile jar. She might as well be making a bomb.
If only they could see me when I cook! Sure I read the recipe, but I don’t let that squelch my creativity. What spices are called for in the recipe are just recommendations, not a do-or-die formula. Half the time I don’t even bother to rummage in my kitchen drawer for the measuring spoons.
I know that sounds like culinary anarchy, but there really is method in my madness. I’m borrowing a nifty rule-of-thumb used by cooks perhaps as far back as Imperial Rome, known today as “bouquet garni.”
Bouquet garni (pronounced boh-KAY gahr-NEE) is a French term that translates roughly as a “handful of herbs.” In times past, the cook would step outside to the kitchen garden and snip a handful of herbs for dinner. Today we generally get our herbs from a jar. The basic formula is the same trio of herbs; bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. The combination is slightly different throughout Europe but the seasoning principle is the same.
If the threesome of bay leaf, thyme, and parsley seems a little tame, change it! The bouquet garni isn’t carved in stone. You can substitute a range of herbs for either the thyme or the parsley.
The key is remembering that 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 basil 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 great cooking rule of thumb is at home far beyond the borders of France. Italy uses parsley, chervil, and bay leaf, with perhaps a bit of marjoram or basil. Spain adds garlic, of course. Hungary includes green pepper and caraway seeds. The Danes go hog wild and combine bay leaf, thyme, parsley, marjoram, lemon peel, mace, cloves, and peppercorns. Whooee!
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, put them in a wire mesh ball or crush them and added directly to the pot. When the cooking is done, toss the bouquet into the trash.
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 cook without fear…and without a white lab coat.