This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles.
There are almost as many varieties of thyme as there are local restaurants that use the word "thyme" in the title. A word of caution when you are plucking it from your back yard: not all varieties--whether shrub or ground-hugging--are edible.
The most common variety of thyme destined for culinary purposes is known as "common," or garden, thyme (or thymus vulgaris) and grows as a small shrub. It comprises a number of subvarieties, including French (with silvery green shades and narrow leaves with pointy edges) and English (with smooth shiny leaves with rounded ends and robust flavor).
Another well-known but less common variety is wild thyme; the very popular lemon thyme falls under this category. (If lemon thyme is unavailable, substitute some common thyme and a pinch of lemon zest.) A creeping subvariety that is found in many gardens locally is thymus praecox, or Mother of Thyme, according to Jim Adams, curator at the National Herb Garden in Washington.
Thyme has an easily identifiable flavor, faintly redolent of mint, that varies in strength depending on the particular variety.
HOW TO BUY: In an ideal world, one need merely step into the back yard or over to the windowsill and snip a few sprigs of thyme from a bush or clay pot. Whether this is the case or you must settle for the prepackaged thyme from the market, look for sprigs that are fragrant and sprightly, not limp. Shake the sprigs lightly; the leaves should remain attached to the branch.
HOW TO STORE: Wrap the bottoms of the sprigs in a damp paper towel and cover the top loosely with plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
If you need to remove those itty-bitty leaves, turn the sprig upside down and run your fingers along the sprig to detach them from the twig.
If you don't plan on using the entire bunch of thyme in a timely fashion, dry it yourself. Remove the sprigs from the packaging, tie them together at the base and hang them upside down in a cool, dry place for about a week. Then just brush the shriveled leaves onto a plate, crumble and transfer to a tightly covered container.
HOW TO PREPARE: Thyme is an essential ingredient in many age-old herb blends, including bouquet garni and herbes de Provence, most likely since it's so user friendly that it melds well with almost anything. So experiment. For example, at Restaurant Nora near Dupont Circle, one can order a side of wilted greens tossed with a thyme-cider vinaigrette alongside corn bread. Yum!
Thyme is especially predominant in the cuisine of the Mediterranean and South of France, where it grows in abundance and accents produce typical of those regions, specifically eggplant, zucchini, summer squash and tomatoes. (Try simply sprinkling these vegetables with thyme leaves and drizzling them with olive oil prior to roasting or grilling.)
Unlike many fresh herbs, thyme will stand up to the rigors of slow-cooking, so its harmonious flavor can be enjoyed throughout the winter as it slowly infuses stocks, stews and chowders. Lemon thyme goes especially well with poultry and fish; just tuck a few sprigs inside the cavity of chicken or turkey prior to roasting, or place a sprig atop fish fillets before baking.
Infuse olive oil or honey with thyme's enticing aroma and flavor, or do the same for a potato or cauliflower au gratin by simmering the cream with a few sprigs and straining the sauce prior to combining it with the remaining ingredients. It's also wonderful in stuffings, preferably with sausage and apples.
Thyme's mild, aromatic flavor can easily weave its way into every course of a meal, from an appetizer of sauteed mushrooms atop crostini to an intermezzo of lemon-thyme sorbet to an entree of roast chicken, even through to a dessert of thyme-laced poundcake or shortbread.