While the herbs could be left in the pot, removing them improves the texture and presentation of the final dish, and leaves an element of surprise for your diners who will need to guess the secret to the layered flavours in the pot. Fresh herbs wilt and discolour after being left to cook over a period of time and hard, bitter whole spices and floating bits of dry herbs detract from the presentation of a finished dish. Bundling them up in a bouquet garni makes them easier to remove before serving.
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Used in French Provencal cooking, a bouquet garni traditionally comprises a combination of fresh parsley, thyme and bay leaf, tied together with a bit of kitchen twine. The herbs can then be switched up to suit any particular dish:
- For the classic combination of fresh herbs favoured by French cooks, think 3-1-1: three sprigs of parsley with stems, a sprig of thyme and one bay leaf is enough to flavour about one litre of liquid.
- A stalk of celery or a leek top adds sweetness, while a slice of lemon peel or some fennel fronds enliven the pot. In Provence, it is not uncommon to add a slice or two of dried orange peel.
- Unexpected flavour notes can come from adding a stalk of lemongrass or nubs of ginger.
- Whole dry spices like peppercorns, juniper berries, star anise and cloves work well in rich braises.
- Herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine such as liquorice root, honey dates and ginseng may also be used in an unconventional bouquet garni, like in this recipe for Asian Beef Bourguignon.
A blend of two or three herbs is usually enough to add balanced flavour to stocks and light soups, though richer long-simmered stews could benefit from up to five herbs and spices.
Long-stemmed fresh herbs can be tied together easily with a length of kitchen twine — just be sure to tie them tightly as fresh herbs shrink after cooking. Tying the other end of the twine to the pot handle makes the bouquet garni even easier to fish out at the end of cooking.
Alternatively, a square of gauzy cheesecloth or muslin gathered up at the corners and tied off at the top makes a handy pouch for loose whole spices like peppercorns and cloves. A coffee filter or tea strainer would work in a pinch as well.