Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Thyme

Well it's about thyme!  After a summer of thrusting fresh basil from the garden into the culinary spotlight, thyme will now have its season of stardom.

Thyme is a perennial member of the mint family, originating in southern Europe and Mediterranean cooking.  There are numerous sub-species of this popular aromatic herb, including the prevalent lemon thyme and common thyme, the narrow-leafed French specimen and the broad-leafed English variety.  It is easily grown in garden plots and windowsill pots.  Thyme infuses a pungent minty-lemony aroma into culinary creations.

Although thyme hails from warmer regions, it's a highly coveted ingredient in cold weather fare.  It is added to soups and stews, sprinkled over fish, meats and poultry, stirred into gravies and mashed potatoes and used to flavor sautéed or roasted vegetables.  Classic French favorites like coq au vin and boeuf bourgignon just wouldn't be authentic without plunging whole sprigs of thyme into the simmering pot.

While I stock almost no dried herbs in my kitchen because fresh is always superior, there are two jars in my spice rack: oregano and thyme.  These herbs are strong enough that as a dried variation, the flavors are, in my opinion, an acceptable substitute for use in soups or stews in a pinch or if one is pressed for time to harvest thyme leaves.

Thyme is one of the most widely used herbs in Thanksgiving cookery.  It is used for seasoning the turkey and as a flavor booster in gravy.  Thyme is used to flavor stuffing and mashed potatoes.  Some cranberry sauce recipes call for the herb as a savory counterpoint to the condiment's sweet component.  Thyme may also be used in the dough for making biscuits.

There are only a scant few prep tasks that I really abhor, and one is dealing with thyme leaves.  When a recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, that is a sure way to put a scowl on my face until the tedious task of stripping those tiny leaves off of the stem is behind me.  Under perfect conditions, you can strip them off by running your thumb and forefinger along the stem against the direction in which the leaves are pointing.  Alas, this is not always successful and thus individual picking of each leaf, accompanied by some grumbled choice words, ensues.  One technique that often works, though not always, is to leave the needed thyme sprigs out on the counter the day before its rendezvous with your dish.  If climate conditions are favorable, it will dry just enough to make the leaf-stripping process more productive.

Here are three simple recipes that feature thyme in the short ingredient lists.  The third recipe also helps you to utilize some of that post-Thanksgiving leftover cranberry sauce.

Cornish Hens with Orange Thyme Glaze

2 Cornish hens
½ orange, cut in half
2 small bunches thyme sprigs
½ cup orange marmalade
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Place the hens in a roasting pan.  Stuff one quarter of an orange and one small bunch of thyme sprigs into the cavity of each hen.  Sprinkle each hen generously with salt and pepper.  In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine all remaining ingredients and stir until the marmalade is melted and the ingredients are thoroughly mixed.  Brush one-half of the mixture over the hens.  Place hens in the oven and bake for one hour, brushing with the remainder of the sauce halfway through cooking time.  Serves two.

Lemon Thyme Shrimp and Scallops

1 pound sea scallops
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup white wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon cold butter

Heat the olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the scallops and shrimp and sauté until the shrimp have turned pink and the scallops are opaque.  Remove from the skillet with a slotted spoon and arrange on four plates.  Add the garlic to the skillet and sauté for one minute.  Add the wine, lemon juice, lemon zest and thyme.  Deglaze the pan and allow to simmer until slightly reduced.  Add the 1 tablespoon of butter and stir until the mixture is thickened.  Pour sauce over the seafood.  Serves two.

Cranberry Thyme Topper

1/2 cup white wine
1 cup cranberry sauce (preferably homemade with whole berries)
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 bunch scallions, green parts sliced crosswise into ¼-inch slices

Combine the above ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until combined and heated through.  Allow to simmer for five minutes.  Remove from heat and spoon over four pork chops or four salmon filets before roasting them in the oven.

Food for Thought

Many recipes for stews call for a bouquet garni.  Just what is a bouquet garni?  Exactly what it sounds like, a bouquet garni is a cute little bouquet of whole sprigs of various herbs.  The bouquet is either held together within the confines of a cheesecloth sachet or tied together with kitchen string.  Thyme is one of the usual suspects to be found in a bouquet garni, along with parsley, bay leaves and, sometimes, marjoram.  The bouquet is typically added to the pot to simmer with the other ingredients, the aromatic flavors permeating the stew.  Before serving, the bouquet is simply fished out and discarded.  When tying a bouquet garni together, leave a length of string to make it easier to find when it's time for removal.

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