I can hear Richard Olney’s voice as I write, since he gave us the most lucid and complete lecture about bouquet garni in Time-Life’s Good Cook series, which I helped him write and recipe test in 1979. He would think my changing its name to herb bundle quite silly, but then maybe not, since his mind was never stuck in any mode except in a search for quality, simplicity, and proper scholarship.
Like the vegetable mix of carrot, onion, and celery that is added to stocks, stews, and braised dishes, this bundle of green (or the tough outer white) leek leaves, celery leaves, bay leaf, parsley, and thyme lends flavor and aromatic structure to cooking liquids. The herbs are tied together into a bundle that can be easily retrieved and discarded after the other ingredients are cooked. Like the vegetable mix, the herb bundle is an ensemble of flavors rather than the taste of any single ingredient. It is very difficult to judge the quantity of dried or fresh herbs to use for a long-cooking dish, but tied together as a bundle, the flavors of the herbs spread very slowly, so that over a few hours the flavors attenuate and refine.
Fresh or dried thyme lends support to most dishes in a way that does not overpower, but creates a base for all the other flavors. Other herbs can be included in the bundle if you want their particular flavors—you can adapt the herbs to your cooking and your mood. Marjoram, with its distinctive odor, will remain fairly dominant even after the cooking juices have been cleaned up and reduced into a sauce. So will tarragon, oregano, winter savory, hyssop (which adds a slightly bitter edge), and lovage (which riffs off the celery in the bundle, as does the leek off the onions in the vegetable mix).
Open up the leek leaves and wrap them around the remaining gathered-together ingredients to completely enclose them. Wrap the whole thing tightly in four or five rings of string.
Chop off the ends of the herb bundle, if only for the satisfaction of neatness. Note: You can prepare the herb bundle the day before and store it, very slightly damp, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
© 2002 Jeremiah Tower. All rights reserved.