- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

There is something about watching children in the herb garden that refreshes the soul.

Last winter, I built a 250-square-foot indoor vegetable garden for Pittsburgh’s Home and Garden Show. One of the highlights was walking children around the 3-foot-high raised wooden beds. At each stop, one of the children would pick an herb, crush the leaves between his or her small fingers and inhale the wonderful aroma.

We always started with lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) because it elicits inquisitive looks, then smiles and eventually questions. Lemon thyme and common garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) are two of the easiest herbs to grow.

A native of the Mediterranean region, thyme thrives in a hot, sunny location with well-drained soil. It doesn’t need much in the way of nutrients. In fact, average garden soil will provide the best-tasting leaves.

Thyme can be aggressive, forming a carpet of plants quickly. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) can be planted between stones in a walkway. With each step, the spicy scent of the herb is released.

The plants bloom in the summer in shades of lavender and pink. Bees love those blossoms, and honey from thyme is delicious, with an herby background flavor. In cool climates, thyme acts as a perennial, coming back every year.

In warmer areas, the herb can be grown for a long season but then will usually die off and need to be replanted the next year.

Adventurous gardeners can grow thyme from seed. I’ve found it quite easy to grow common thyme from seed, but many gardeners prefer to use softwood cuttings to propagate their plants.

Softwood cuttings are what you get when you cut off the ends of the plant and plant them in vermiculite or put them in water until they root. Then you plant the stems as you would a regular nursery-purchased plant.

Seeds and softwood cuttings should be sown in a good planting mix in pots. Barely cover them with a sprinkling of the mix, and cover the pot with clear plastic. The pot should be stored at about 70 degrees in the shade outdoors until the plants sprout.

In a week or two, when the plants sprout, take off the plastic and keep them in a well-lit area. Never let thyme get too wet because this can kill the seedlings.

The most popular way to grow thyme is from potted plants. Look for them at your favorite nursery, and choose plants that are nice and green with no woody stems in the center.

Thyme has been used for centuries for its culinary, aromatic and medicinal properties. Ancient Egyptians used it for embalming pharaohs.

In the kitchen, there are two schools of thought about using thyme while cooking. Some say to add the herb early in the cooking process so the plant releases its oils into the dish. Others prefer to add thyme toward the end to keep the fresh thyme flavor. Have some fun when cooking with thyme, and try it both ways.

Next year, I’m planting garlic in the raised beds of the Home and Garden Show. I can’t wait to see the look on the children’s faces when they get a whiff of that.

Here are several ideas for using thyme: Rubbing crushed garlic and fresh thyme over beef, lamb and pork adds a nice flavor to the meat.

Fresh thyme is a tasty addition to stuffing. It is also good with eggs and in tomato sauce.

Thyme also combines well with basil, oregano, sage, rosemary and, of course, garlic as a seasoning for pasta, poultry, meat and fish.

Baked fish with thyme

4 tablespoons good olive oil (or use chicken broth if you are counting calories)

1 head of chopped garlic (use only half if you are not a garlic lover)

1/4 cup fresh thyme, chopped (use lemon thyme if you can find it)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or butter substitute, melted

1 cups fresh bread crumbs

teaspoon salt

teaspoon pepper

1/3 cup mixed shredded Asiago, Parmesan and Romano cheeses

1 teaspoon Italian parsley, chopped

4 to 6 fish fillets (3 or 4 ounces each), skin on one side

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

Heat olive oil or chicken broth over low heat in medium saute pan. Add garlic. (I like it chopped, but you might prefer minced or even bigger pieces. The smaller you cut it, the more garlic flavor will be released.) Never turn your back on garlic in the pan. The worst thing you can do is burn it. Keep it moving.

After fragrance is released, add the thyme and butter (or butter substitute) and cook for a minute or two until the aromas are released.

Combine bread crumbs, salt, pepper, cheese and parsley in a bowl, and mix it together. Brush fillets with garlic-thyme-butter-oil mixture. Now dust the skinless side with bread-crumb mixture.

Place fillets on a broiler pan or a greased baking pan, skin side down. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes in preheated 350-degree oven, or until fish is cooked to desired doneness. Sprinkle with grated lemon zest and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Plenty-of-thyme sauteed chicken

My boss was lurking around my desk while I was working on this piece. When he heard I was writing about thyme, he offered this recipe.

In an effort to keep my job and please him (although he happens to be a great cook), I’ll pass it along to you. Imagine working for a guy who thinks this title is funny.

3 pounds chicken thighs, skin removed

Salt and pepper

teaspoon dried thyme

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 ripe large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

cup minced red onion

cup dry red wine

3/4 cup aged red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

Fried onions or fresh sage sprigs for garnish, optional

Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper to taste, then with dried thyme. Toss chicken to distribute evenly.

Heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in nonreactive pan. Place chicken in pan; saute on all sides until cooked through. Remove chicken from pan and keep warm. Pour off excess fat.

Add tomato and red onion to pan, and saute, stirring, until lightly browned. Add wine and boil until reduced by about a third (so that two-thirds remain). Add vinegar and continue boiling until reduced by half. Add chicken pieces and fresh thyme. Turn pieces; simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Put chicken pieces on a serving platter. Whisk remaining butter into sauce until emulsified. Pour over chicken, garnish with onion or fresh sage sprigs. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Doug Oster is a garden columnist and picture editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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