Enhance the flavor of the foods you cook by using a bouquet garni, a mixture of herbs, either fresh or dried. A bouquet garni may be made from either fresh ingredients tied together, or dried ingredients mixed and placed in cheesecloth tied into a bag for dipping into soups, stews, sauces, casseroles or meat dishes.
But these days, with fresh herbs readily available in supermarkets year-round, there's really no need to rely on dried. Fresh herbs wake up the palate and add pizzazz to any dish.
To store fresh herbs, wrap them loosely in a barely damp paper towel and seal in a zippered plastic bag for up to five days.
Stems of basil, parsley and cilantro can be kept like a bunch of flowers, with their stems in a glass of water. Cover the glass with a plastic bag and refrigerate for up to a week.
With the exception of rosemary, which can withstand long cooking times, fresh herbs are usually added to a dish toward the end of cooking to preserve maximum flavor. Dried herbs are usually added at the beginning of cooking so their flavor can develop.
If you use dry herbs, remember that 1 teaspoon of a dried herb is equal to 1 tablespoon of a fresh herb. If you are using dried herbs, then after measuring, crush them between your fingers to release the flavor.
To flavor soups and stews, combine various herbs and spices. Tie them in a small square of muslin or cheesecloth, and drop into your pot. Remove the package prior to serving.
The proportion of different herbs in your bouquet must be balanced. If you combine equal parts of robust herbs (such as garlic, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme) and mild herbs (basil, bay leaf, chervil, dill, marjoram, parsley), the robust will mask the mild.
Flavor families sure to complement each other include:
• Classic – basil, bay leaf, oregano and parsley;
• Herbal – basil, marjoram, rosemary and thyme;
• Hot – chili peppers, cilantro, cumin and garlic;
• Pungent – celery, chili peppers, cumin, curry, ginger and whole black pepper;
• Sweet – allspice, anise, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg;
• Mediterranean – rosemary, sage and savory;
• Italian – oregano, marjoram, thyme, savory, basil, rosemary and sage.
Remember to adjust the size of the bouquet garni to work well with the volume of the food being prepared. The goal is to enhance the flavor, not to overpower it.
If you'd rather not mix your own herbs, manufactured garni bags are available in grocery and specialty stores. Similar to tea bags, they contain preselected herbal ingredients, and come sealed in paper steeping bags.
When making your own bags, remember to leave the twine long so you can attach it to the pot handle. This will make the bouquet garni easier to retrieve.