Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Thyme

by Sandra Bowens

When in doubt use thyme, goes an old adage.  That may be why we find the fragrant herb in all sorts of recipes from meats and vegetables to sauces and breads.  Thyme is considered “necessary” in clam chowder, bouquet garni, and herbes de Provence.


So closely associated with courage, a high compliment from an early Greek is said to have been to say, "You smell of thyme." Roman soldiers bathed in thyme water to ensure strength and courage. Even in the Middle Ages the ladies would sew a sprig of thyme into a scarf as a gift for their knights who were setting out on an adventure.


Another meaning for thyme could be from the Greek "to fumigate." The aromatic herb was once used to purify Greek temples and burned to eradicate insects from the home. It was used to battle the Plague in Europe around the 1600's. The essential oils of thyme served as an antiseptic on the battlefields of World War I.


Those essential oils and a further distillation to the white crystals known as thymol have abundant useful applications. Essential oils flavor commercially prepared foods and scent personal care products. Although the pure form can cause dizziness, nausea, muscular weakness and even death, thymol is found in preparations of mouthwashes, cough drops and the like. It can serve to preserve meat and has long been used in bookbinding to prevent mold and mildew.


More than a hundred varieties exist but common thyme, Thymus vulgaris, is most frequently grown for commercial use and in backyard herb gardens. It is a small, perennial shrub, native to the Mediterranean. The tiny white or pink flowers are loved by bees.


It's an easy plant to grow in the garden or in a pot. A sunny location is best and good drainage is vital as thyme is somewhat susceptible to root rot. Regular pruning promotes growth so as you take cuttings for the kitchen consider shaping the plant as you go. Most plants will need to be replaced after three years or so because they have a tendency to get woody and unattractive.


Other varieties to consider are the citrusy Lemon thyme (T. X citriodorus) or the savory and low-growing Caraway thyme (T. Herba-barona). Mother-of-thyme and Creeping thyme (both T. praecox subsp. arcticus) are attractive, useful ground covers. Woolly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus) is just right as a rock garden specimen or when planted between paving stones.


This herb is frequently used dried, marketed as thyme leaves, and in its fresh form adds flavor to a recipe as well as making a lovely garnish.  Before adding fresh thyme to a dish, the grayish-green leaves should be stripped from the woody stem.  These stems smoke pleasantly when tossed onto the coals while barbecuing.


It's difficult to think of a food that is not complemented by thyme. Even sweets like sugar cookies or lemon squares can be improved with a hint of thyme. Meats are a natural for thyme, as are onions. Cheese dishes and all sorts of beans cry out for the addition of thyme. Vegetables, especially corn, carrots and potatoes, are terrific when seasoned with the herb, fresh or dried.


Thyme combines well with other herbs, too. Garlic is a perfect companion. Thyme is nearly always included in Cajun spice mixes and, as stated above, in bouquet garni (along with parsley and a bay leaf) and herbes de Provence, the classic blend with basil, lavender, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram and fennel.


Thyme symbolizes courage, so be brave and use this warming herb the next time you are wondering how to enhance a dish.



All American Five Onion Soup

Sour cream makes an attractive garnish to this hearty but still light soup. If desired, top each serving with a small dollop of sour cream and then sprinkle with the chives. Sausage and Sage Corn Muffins are terrific alongside steaming bowls of this soup.


1   Tablespoon butter

1   Tablespoon olive oil

1   yellow onion, peeled, halved and sliced thin (2 cups)

1   red onion, peeled, halved and sliced thin (2 cups)

2   shallots, minced (1 cup)

1   leek, washed and sliced into green part about 2 inches (2 cups)

3   green onions, sliced including but separate green parts (2 Tablespoons white portion, 3 Tablespoons green)

2   Tablespoon fresh thyme or 2 teaspoon dried

1/4 cup red wine

1 1/4   cups beef stock

1 1/4  cups chicken stock

1/2   teaspoon salt

1/4   teaspoon black pepper

2   Tablespoons snipped chives, for garnish


In a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil.  Add the yellow and red onions; stir well.  Cook for 5 minutes. stirring often.  Add the shallots and leek.  Cook and stir for about 5 minutes more and then add the green onions and thyme.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to brown and stick to the pan, about 15 minutes. Deglaze the pan by pouring in the wine, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot until the liquid has evaporated.  Add the beef and chicken stock along with the salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer another 10 minutes. Stir in the sliced green parts of the green onions.


Just before serving, ladle the soup into 4 heated serving bowls and sprinkle with the snipped chives.  Serve piping hot.


Makes 4 servings.



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