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A herbal high

Some words add to your appreciation of food. Bouquet garni is one such term that immediately tickles my nostrils: I get a hint of parsley and thyme, and perhaps a whiff of oregano or sage. And I think of a pot of stew simmering away, with the herbs adding their flavours to it.

The phrase itself is greatly evocative. As we all know, it translates into a bouquet for garnishing. It’s a little posy of herbs tied together, or put in a piece of soft cloth like cheesecloth or muslin, with the ends tied. The bouquet is placed in your sauce or stew. Once the flavours have been infused into the dish, you discard the bouquet.

Traditionally, the bouquet garni consisted of bay leaf and a sprig or two of parsley and thyme. But increasingly, chefs are adding their own favourite herbs to this, depending on what is being cooked, or the flavours that particularly appeal to them. Chef Pradip Rozario of K.K.’s Fusion, Calcutta, for instance, has been using different kinds of herbs in his bouquet garni for various recipes.

Bouquet garni

What makes the bouquet garni different from the herbs that go straight into the sauce is the strength of the flavour. When herbs are added to the taste of the sauce in the form of a bouquet garni, the idea is to flavour your dish just right. The moment you put in it a little bouquet of herbs, you are controlling the flavours. When you remove the bouquet, you are ensuring that you are not going to drown your dish with any of the flavours.

The bouquet garni used mostly in French cooking has been tweaked effectively by the chefs. Chef Francis Luzinier, who is the executive chef, Northern Region, Food and Beverages, at The Lalit in New Delhi, tells me that he likes to add peppercorns to his bouquet garni, and replace parsley with celery.

The French usually like to use a bouquet garni in their stocks and for marinating meats. Chef Francis finds that his bouquet garni goes particularly well with rabbit, the hind leg of venison, wild boar and wood pigeon. “And it works very well in the coq au vin,” he says.

Sausage and chickpea casserole with basil, rocket leaves and chilli

But for chef Rozario, the bouquet garni is all about mixing herbs to suit the taste of a particular dish. When he steams his hilsa with wine, he likes to infuse the flavours of coriander and sage in it both of which are strong herbs that add to the intense taste of the fish. Or when he prepares a sausage and chickpea casserole, his bouquet garni consists of basil, rocket leaves and chilli, which gives a mildly tart taste to the dish, along with the pungency of chillies.

What the chef stresses is the use of the right herbs for the right kind of sauces. He cooks a breast of turkey wrapped with ham and flavours the dish with a bouquet of rosemary and oregano tarting up the mild taste of the meat with strong herbs. When he cooks calamari and prawns, he poaches them in a sauce with three herbs curry leaves, fennel and dill. “This is a light bouquet garni which goes well with seafood,” he explains.

Calamari and prawns poached in curry leaves, fennel and dill sauce

The great thing about a bouquet garni is that it doesn’t confuse your taste buds with flavours. When you put the same herbs say, rosemary, thyme and oregano directly into your sauce, the herbs can, if not handled expertly, overwhelm the taste. “A bouquet garni, on the other hand, infuses your sauces with just the right degree of flavours,” says chef Rozario.

And if you take his apricot lamb with mint and orange, you know what he means. In this, he makes a bouquet garni out of orange rind and mint. This gives the sauce its orange-and-minty flavour but doesn’t turn the sauce bitter, as can happen with orange rind in a sauce.

There is another reason why chefs like to use a bouquet garni instead of adding herbs to a sauce. Herbs like rosemary have an intense taste that can tickle or even irritate your taste buds when you don’t want them to. Not everybody likes the sudden taste of a rosemary strand in the mouth while biting into a chicken. A bouquet garni, on the other hand, gives you the flavour but doesn’t leave you with herbs stranded in the sauce.

That’s why Indian chefs also often like to use the bouquet garni’s Indian cousin, potli which means a bundle and is a mix of spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and peppercorn to enhance flavours in biryanis and kormas. You get the flavours but are not left with bits of cinnamon or peppercorns stuck in your teeth.

But the potli, I am afraid, is not quite a word that woos your gastric juices. A bouquet garni, on the other hand, conjures up a vision of a little posy of leaves that can be more seductive than a bunch of flowers.

Spiced mackerel infused with coriander and thyme, served with avocado mango salsa (serves 4)

Ingredients: • 2 tsp ground coriander seeds • 2 tsp ground cumin seeds • 1 tsp turmeric powder • 1 tsp cayenne pepper • pinch of salt • 500 g whole mackerel • 1 cup stock

For the salsa: • 1 small avocado • 1 small mango • 1 finely chopped small onion • juice of 1 lime

For the bouquet garni: • 2 sprigs coriander leaves • 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves

Method:

For the salsa, halve, peel and finely dice the avocado and mango. Mix with the onion and lime juice and set aside.

Put the coriander and thyme leaves in a strip of cheesecloth and tie with a piece of string to make a bouquet. Mix the coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne and salt in a bowl. Cut deep slashes on the skin side of the mackerel and rub the spices all over.

In a frying pan heat the stock along with the bouquet garni. Poach the mackerel in the stock. Serve the poached mackerel with salsa spooned over it, accompanied by flatbreads.

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