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Last night I was sharing a bottle of Tuscan wine with my date as I pondered what to write for this week’s edition of my column. I was only a few days away from my deadline and deep in the throes of writer’s block. “Why not something on herbs or spices?” queried my sultry wine-loving companion. Her suggestion, pardon the pun, arrived in the nick of “thyme.”
Given my source of inspiration, thyme was an apropos choice. Thyme was regarded as an aphrodisiac by the ancient Greeks. In the Middle Ages women embroidered sprigs of thyme on their knight’s clothing as a symbol of courage. Thyme has been employed by man since at least 3,000 BC but initially for incense, decorations, and medicinal purposes. The ancient Egyptians even utilized it in their mummification process. It wasn’t until the Roman Empire that it was used for culinary purposes, namely to flavor cheese and liqueurs.
Thyme is a perennial herb from the mint family native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. There are over 100 varieties of thyme. The most widely used is common thyme, also known as garden thyme. There is also lemon thyme which, as its name implies, harbors a notable lemon scent. Bees love thyme and thyme honey is a pungent and highly regarded honey.
Thyme is a perennial and will withstand the winter. Nevertheless, I plant my thyme in large pots that I bring indoors for the winter. I place them on a sunny windowsill and thus induce year long growth. Come spring I return the pot outdoors. Thyme needs considerable sun so plant it accordingly. To harvest the leaves run your thumb and forefinger down the stem toward the base.
Thyme is quite versatile and has a wide range of culinary applications. It goes well with all types of meat, fowl, some fish dishes, and most vegetables. It is an indispensable commodity in soups, stews, and braised dishes. Although all herbs taste freshest when added at or near the end of cooking, thyme is fairly hardy and can withstand extended cooking. Sometimes the leaves are chopped and added while other times the cook will add whole sprigs of thyme and retrieve the stems before serving. Although fresh is always best, thyme is one of the few herbs that is palatable in dried form. Like all dried herbs and spices, store in a cool dark place for no more than six months.
Thyme is one of the ingredients in the classic “bouquet garni,” a tied batch of thyme, parsley, and bay leaves. The bundle is then used to flavor stocks, soups, stews, etc. Thyme is also one of the “herbes de Provence,” an assortment of herbs indigenous to the Provence region of France.
Thyme can be used to make an herb infused oil. Take a bottle of olive oil and stick sprigs of thyme and other herbs if you wish, through the top. Allow it to rest for a week and it will have a wonderful herb scent. Use it in salad dressings or to coat or sauté other herb flavored foods.
Try this for homemade croutons. Cut up a loaf of French or Italian bread into cubes. Pour a generous amount of olive oil into a preheated skillet. Add garlic and a batch of untrimmed thyme. Sauté for a few minutes until the oil becomes fragrant, taking care not to burn the garlic. Remove the thyme and garlic; add the croutons, salt and pepper, and sauté until crisp, periodically stirring to evenly coat the croutons in the oil.
For a tasty variation on marinara sauce, sauté garlic and a batch of thyme in olive oil just like for the croutons. Add a pinch of hot pepper flakes if you like. Remove the thyme and garlic, add red wine, bring to a boil and then simmer until the wine is reduced by at least half. Then add your tomatoes, salt and pepper and simmer to the desired consistency.
Thyme works well with all meats but I particularly like it with red meat. I almost always coat any type of roast I make with either fresh or dried thyme. I wouldn’t think of making roast beef, pot roast, beef stew, or osso buco without thyme. I also use it on steaks and chops as in the below recipe for lamb, which in my opinion, has the best affinity for thyme.
4 lamb rib chops
Olive oil as needed
Dried thyme as needed
Salt and pepper to taste
Half cup red wine
2 tablespoons cold butter
I never measure the thyme for this dish but simply “eyeball” it. Brush the chops with olive oil and sprinkle them with dried thyme, salt and pepper. Heat up a sauté pan, add olive oil, and when it just starts to smoke add the chops. Sear them on each side and set aside. Pour out the excess oil if desired and deglaze the pan with the red wine. Sprinkle the wine with more dried thyme. Reduce the wine by half. Return the chops to the pan and add the butter. Serve the chops as soon as the butter has melted into the sauce.
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