Thyme And Thyme Again

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…”

So begins one of the loveliest and headiest passages of poetry William Shakespeare ever wrote.  It hails, of course, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and is spoken by Oberon, King of the Fairies.

thyme_pestle

It’s absolutely right and proper that such an intoxicating speech should begin with a reference to thyme. This evergreen herb has almost magical properties in the kitchen, and a fair number of medicinal uses as well.

Used as an essential oil, it has powerful antiseptic properties. A tea brewed from thyme and honey is a fantastic natural remedy for sore throats, and thyme has also long been believed to be an excellent aid for a good night’s sleep. Indeed in the Middle Ages, people slept with sprigs of thyme under their pillows to ensure sweet dreams.  Long before the Romans brought thyme with them on their march through Europe, the Ancient Greeks were burning it as incense in their temples, believing it to be a source of courage.

So why does it seem like nobody since Oberon has been bigging up thyme? Why don’t we hear more about it? After all, it crops up just about everywhere in European, Mediterranean and Arab cuisine.

  • It’s an essential component of a bouquet garni (in fact you can’t really make a decent stock without thyme)
  • It is central to the classic “herbes de Provence”
  • It is found in that delicious Arab blend of herbs and spices, Za’atar.

Perhaps it’s precisely because thyme blends so well- and so frequently- that we don’t give it the full-on attention it deserves. It almost hides in plain sight, as it were. It’s as assertive a flavor in its own right as its Mediterranean cousins oregano and mint, but unlike those equally heady herbs, it blends well with other herbs. It adds a base herbal note that both softens and deepens the flavor of sage, and does the same for rosemary. And it blends equally well with spices as culturally diverse as saffron, cinnamon and paprika. In so many dishes from so many different cuisines, you might not notice the thyme is there, but the dish wouldn’t taste right if it wasn’t. Perhaps thyme is the Zelig of herbs.

Well I say enough of that. I say it’s time for thyme.

If vanilla is my favorite spice, then thyme is absolutely my favorite herb. It’s the herb I use most frequently, and for good reasons.

The first reason is of course its flavor. I love the headiness of thyme, how it is- for me- almost the definition of an “herbal” flavor. But it’s never overpowering. You don’t have to be as careful with thyme as you are with so many other herbs. Sage can be downright thuggish if not used sparingly, oregano can take herbal spiciness too far, and rosemary can be so stridently piney as to make a dish taste like floor cleaner. Thyme, however, has a more rounded taste; one that allows you to not only build it into the stock at the base of a risotto, but also to sprinkle the raw leaves through the dish to finish it off.

thyme_closeThe other reason is its texture. Although thyme is a “woody” herb, its leaves are themselves so tiny and soft that you barely need to chop them. They aren’t furry like sage or hard and sharp like rosemary, so mouth-feel is never an issue. And the fact that thyme is a “woody” herb means it’s also an oily herb. It’s those oils in the leaves and stems that allow thyme to stand up so well against the test of, well, time. It’s one of the few herbs that is actually as effective dried as fresh, though I’d spend that little bit extra on a good source rather than your supermarket variety-or just dry it yourself if such is your nature. And best of all, if bought fresh it lasts for absolute ages in the fridge. If like me, you lack the garden/window ledge/botanical ability to grow and keep fresh herbs (seriously, I could probably kill kudzu) then thyme is the herb for you. There are so many fresh herbs I regretfully buy for use in one meal, knowing full well that market forces (by which I mean the volume in which one is forced to purchase) mean that I’ll  wind up throwing a lot of it away.  Not so with thyme. I can  make a stock, add it to a stew, sprinkle it over scrambled eggs, lay a few sprigs under a piece of chicken I’m baking, scatter it over a salad or a piece of grilled meat or fish (thyme goes with just about all flesh),  or make that little decoction for a sore throat. That couple weeks rather than days that a bunch of thyme lasts in my fridge crisper drawer allows me to do whatever I want, and ensures that I’ll use just about every last little leaf.

One of my favorites uses for my favorite herb is in my favorite kitchen implement, the  pestle and mortar. Those tender thyme little leaves- even dried- break down so easily under a good grind, and marry beautifully with thyme’s natural partners garlic and salt, as to make a quick marinade or rub-or even a no-sauce pasta dish- incredibly quick and delicious. So here, to showcase how easy thyme is to use, and how it goes with everything, are three uses for thyme that I use, well, all the thyme.

Middle Eastern(ish) Rub for Lamb, Chicken or Fish

prime-rib-roast-with-garlic-and-thyme-recipe-3

You will need:

  • 1 huge or two smaller cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a generous pinch of sea salt
  • the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, enough for about 2 teaspoons
  • 2 heaped tablespoons sumac
  • a good grind of pepper
  • olive oil

What you do:

  • As above grind the garlic, salt and thyme together until you have a green paste, then add in the sumac and grind again.
  • Add enough olive oil and that good grind of pepper, teaspoon by teaspoon, until you have a loose- but by no means liquid- paste.
  • Then just rub all over your chosen piece of flesh and leave to marinate in a sealed container at room temperature for 1/2 hour.
  • After that grill your lamb or fish, or bake your chicken!

Spiced Steak Marinade

You will need:

  • 1 huge or two smaller cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a generous pinch of sea salt
  • the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, enough for about 2 teaspoons
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • olive oil
  • red wine

What you do:

  • Throw the garlic clove , the sea salt, and the thyme into your pestle and mortar and give it a good grind.
  • Once the garlic has broken down and it’s starting to look like a green paste, add in the paprika and and cinnamon and grind again, until you have a sticky sludge.
  • Add enough olive oil to just loosen and moisten the paste, then the red wine, a teaspoon at a time, until you achieve a syrupy consistency.
  • Place your steak in a container, brush or spoon over half the marinade, then flip the same and pour the remaining marinade over he top.
  • Cover the container and leave to marinate at room temperature for 1/2 hour.
  • Then grill to your desired done-ness!

Spaghetti With Mushrooms, Garlic And Thyme

thyme_pasta

(Serves 1. Simply double up the amounts of pasta, mushrooms and butter to make this a speedy supper for two)

You will need:

  • 80g of dried spaghetti
  • 2-3 large brown mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • olive oil
  • 3 large knobs of butter
  • 1 huge or two smaller cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a generous pinch of sea salt
  • the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, enough for about 2 teaspoons
    pepper
  • 1 wine glass white wine (optional)

What you do:

  • While the water for the spaghetti is coming to the boil do your thing in the pestle and mortar with the garlic, sea salt and thyme, and bring a medium-sized frying pan up to a medium heat.
  • Once the water’s boiling, throw in the spaghetti and add the olive oil and 1 knob of butter to the frying pan. Once the butter starts to foam, throw in the mushrooms. Keep stirring and flipping the mushroom slices; you want them to cook evenly and not too quickly.  And don’t get worried. Mushrooms are very spongey, so the minute they hit the hot oil and butter they’ll absorb it. Your pan will look very dry for a few minutes but don’t worry. As the mushrooms themselves cook, they’ll start to release liquid back into the pan.
  • Once the mushrooms are starting to look meaty and cooked, add the rest of the butter into the frying pan, along with the garlic and thyme paste from the pestle and mortar, and stir well for a couple of minutes. After a minute you could also- should you have any to hand- chuck in a glass of white wine, and let that bubble and reduce in the buttery,  garlicky, thymey mushrooms mixture.
  • By now your spaghetti should be just al dente, so after checking that this is in fact the cse, drain your pasta (but not too thoroughly, and add it to the frying pan.  Using two big forks, stir and toss the pasta through the contents of the pan until the spaghetti strands are glistening and the mushrooms slices are well distributed.
  • Then simply decant into a large bowl and devour!

You could sprinkle some Parmesan over this, or even spike it up with chili flakes and lemon rind alongside the garlic and thyme (in which case I’d omit the butter and use more olive oil )- and indeed both the thyme and mushrooms go well with chili and lemon. But on an autumnal evening like this, when it’s not Midsummer,  I like it just the way it is.

One thought on “Thyme And Thyme Again

  1. Thyme is one of my favorite herbs. I was so excited when I moved to Nap aand realized that the shrubs outside my window, with the beautiful tiny blue flowers, were thyme shrubs. So fragrant, beautiful, abundant, and infinitely useful.

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