Capturing the sweet outdoors

French cooks have such a taste for thyme they even add it to desserts.

thyme 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
thyme 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
No matter how many spice bottles we have crowded into our pantries, every cook has certain seasonings beside salt and pepper that he or she reaches for more often than others. In my mother's kitchen it was paprika; in my mother-in-law's cumin and turmeric. In the French kitchen, it's probably thyme. When fresh thyme and whole bay leaves are tied together with a string, often with a few parsley stems as well, they form the classic French bouquet garni. Chefs toss this bundle of herbs into stocks, soups and sauces so they are infused with the herbs' flavor as they simmer. When it comes to tomato sauce, thyme is as important to the French style as its cousin oregano is to the Italian. When I studied cooking in Paris, the chefs added thyme as a background accent to practically every savory dish, and some even to desserts, notably sorbet. "These tiny leaves are among the most valuable in the realm of herbs - their flavors are neither too pale nor too pungent, wrote Sylvia Thompson in The Kitchen Garden Cookbook. "They seem to have captured the sweet outdoors in their leaves." When I cooked rice with a thyme sprig in the pan for a dinner party, a guest asked me what made the rice so delicious. Unless you've cooked with thyme, you may be less familiar with it than with oregano, which is more assertive. Thyme's taste, especially when it's added as whole sprigs and removed, can be elusive. It simply makes a dish taste good without necessarily making a statement on its own. I like to use thyme several ways - whole sprigs simmered at length to lend a subtle aroma to soups or sauces, or thyme leaves added at the last minute as a flavor accent. Used as a finishing touch, the result is most delicious when the thyme leaves are fresh, but dried leaf thyme contributes good taste too. Chopping the tiny fresh thyme leaves might seem tedious but I've found that for most dishes, you don't need to - just add them whole. A Mediterranean herb, thyme is hardy and easy to grow in our climate. Unlike parsley and coriander, it's a perennial so once your thyme bush is established, you don't need to replant it. With your own plant, you have the luxury of being able to use as much as you want, even as a garnish. Fresh thyme sprigs add a delightful decorative touch to dishes, not just attractive but aromatic, and each person can pick off leaves and sprinkle some over his or her portion, for the freshest touch of thyme. In Hebrew some recipes refer to thyme as koranit and some as timin. I've also seen the English word thyme used as a translation for za'atar on packages of zaatar mix (the familiar blend that usually includes toasted sesame seeds) from other countries in the Mideast. Herb terminology is confusing in many languages. Eli Putievsky, author of Spices (in Hebrew) notes that thyme is called zaatar in Arabic, but that the word zaatar is used for several herbs. According to Putievsky, thyme originated in southern Europe, while the plant that we know in Israel as zaatar, usually translated as hyssop or Syrian marjoram, is native to Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Gernot Katzer, author of Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages, agrees and notes: "Turkish kekik or Arabic zatar... may be applied to a variety of native herbs including, but not restricted to, oregano, marjoram, thyme and savory. Usage may vary even within a given language, depending on the region and particularly on the local flora." Putievsky notes that zaatar is popular for salads, for sprinkling over bread, for seasoning meats and for flavoring olive oil. Thompson likes thyme is a wide variety of foods: "Although it isn't incompatible with any food I can think of, garden thyme is perhaps most delicious with fresh beans, carrots, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cheese and chowders." Personally, I would add fish, turkey and chicken to her list. Whenever I am broiling or baking a fish with only one seasoning to keep the fish as natural-tasting as possible, thyme is the one I choose. VERMICELLI WITH TURKEY, TOMATOES AND THYME Tomato sauce accented with fresh thyme adds zip to the turkey and the pasta. Instead of pasta, you can serve the turkey in its sauce over rice or bulgur wheat. You can substitute skinless boneless chicken for the turkey. If you like, omit the turkey and sausage and add small cubes of firm tofu to the finished sauce, and accompany the dish with grated Parmesan cheese. 5 to 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 large shallot or 2 green onions, minced, 1.3 to 1.4 kg. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped, or 3 large (800 gr.) cans tomatoes, drained 1 large whole fresh thyme sprig (optional) 1 bay leaf Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 to 2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or 1⁄2 to 1 tsp. dried leaf thyme, or more to taste 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley or tarragon 500 to 550 gr. boneless turkey breast 2 medium zucchini or pale-green-skinned squash (keeshou) 40 to 50 gr. thinly sliced salami or smoked sausage, cut in thin strips (4 cm. x 6 mm.) (optional) 350 gr. vermicelli Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large deep skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add shallot and sauté 1 minute. Add tomatoes, thyme sprig, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cook over medium heat, stirring often (and crushing canned tomatoes, if using), about 25 minutes or until tomatoes are soft and mixture is thick. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. Add thyme leaves and parsley. Cut turkey in thin strips, about 4 cm. x 6 mm. x 6 mm. Cut zucchini in strips approximately same size as turkey. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add half of turkey and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté 3 minutes or until just tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat it. Sauté remaining turkey and remove. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat it. Add zucchini and sauté over medium heat about 1 minute or until barely tender. Transfer to a plate. Add salami strips and turkey with any liquid that escaped from it to tomato sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir and keep warm over very low heat. Add pasta to a large pot of boiling salted water and cook uncovered over high heat, separating strands occasionally with fork, 6 to 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well and transfer to a large heated bowl. Toss with remaining tablespoon oil, if using, then with turkey-tomato sauce and zucchini. Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes 4 main-course servings. Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series and of Feast from the Mideast.