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A little lemony and decidedly distinctive, thyme is a crucial ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. You'll find it in soups and sauces, vegetable and meat dishes, as well as classic spice blends like bouquet garni and herbes de Provence.
Botanical name: Thymus vulgaris L.
Also known as common thyme or garden thyme, Thymus vulgaris is one of over 350 species in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. It has a woody root and hard, reddish-brown stems with small, delicate leaves and little pink flowers. It grows to about a foot in height.
The cleansing, pleasant scent of thyme was used by ancient Greeks to perfume and purify baths and temples, while the ancient Egyptians used the plant for embalming. Virgil acknowledged thyme's antiseptic qualities, too, and Pliny recommended it for ridding an area of serpents. In Medieval times, women would give knights and warriors sprigs of thyme, to inspire courage. (In fact, the Greek word thumus means courage.) Its earliest uses were culinary, too; the Romans enjoyed it in cheeses and liqueurs. Also associated with death, thyme is planted on graves in England and carried at funerals. In some cultures, it has been placed on coffins to promise a safe passage to the afterlife. Thyme is sometimes planted nearby beehives; bees seem to love the plant, and it yields a wonderful honey.
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Thyme is a fairly potent seasoning, so begin with just a pinch or two, then add to taste. And add it early on in your cooking, so that the flavor has time to develop and meld with other ingredients.
Thyme blends well with many other herbs, enhancing rather than overpowering other flavors. Use this organic herb to add warmth and pungency to marinades, stuffings, vegetables, stews and cheese dishes. The strong, fresh, lemony flavor of thyme is popular in many European cuisines. The French, for example, use it liberally in soups, stews, sauces, vinegars, and the blends bouquet garnis and herbes de Provence. They also pair it with fish, meat, and poultry. In Jordan it's used in a condiment called zahtar, and in Egypt it's used to flavor meat. In Creole cooking, it flavors blackened meat and fish, and in Central American cuisine it's used to make jerk seasoning.
Use thyme to enhance marinades for chicken and fish, in herb butters and cottage cheese. Add it to egg and cheese dishes (like quiche, frittatas, and omelets) to white sauces and vegetable casseroles. It's delicious in salads (like carrot salad or warm potato salad), soups, and salad dressings.
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