Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Rosemary & Thyme

Culinary herbs tend to fall into two major camps — green and leafy (think parsley, cilantro and basil) and woody/twiggy, which brings us to this week’s spotlight, rosemary and thyme.

I'll bet my weight in rosemary that many of you have twiggy herbs on those grocery lists for Thanksgiving or will be busy clipping from your (or a neighbor’s) backyard stash. Autumn and winter cookery would be a lot less interesting in the absence of these assertively flavored twigs — can you imagine a thyme or rosemary-less roasted chicken or stuffing without the sage (another card-carrying member of the twiggy nation)?

A Brief History

Both rosemary and thyme are ancient plants native to the Mediterranean.

Both are members the mint family (more on that in a bit) and thyme is the apparent elder, a veteran of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. Archeologists have unearthed Sumerian cuneiform tablets from around 2750 BC that make references to thyme used as a poultice. Babylonian physicians used it as an antiseptic, the Egyptians used the oil for embalming and the Romans, who thought of it as a symbol of courage, took it on the road into Europe.

A few thousand years after thyme earned a spot in the ancients' spice rack, rosemary, thyme’s equally wild but decidedly more fragrant relative, shows up on sea cliffs of ancient Greece and neighboring Mediterranean spots around 500 BC. According to some sources, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder was smitten with rosemary, which he allegedly named ros (dew) marinus (of the sea). The name may also be referring to the dew-like silvery appearance of the signature needles.

Ancient Greek and Roman students apparently would wear rosemary sprigs in their hair to help them concentrate; the twig has also been touted as the “herb of remembrance,” as a way to memorialize the dead.

Factual Nibbles

  • Speaking of oil, thymol is its name, and  you may have seen it listed on your favorite mouthwash or disinfectant spray. Thymol is in fact an ingredient in good ole Listerine and makes an appearance in Seventh Generation’s line of cleaning products.
  • Thyme has also made its mark in literature. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the beloved 16th century comedy by William Shakespeare, Oberon, king of the Fairies, says to Puck, the court jester, that “I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,” which also refers to the commonly held notion that thyme brings out the fairy in all of us.
  • Fresh thyme is a component of bouquet garnis, the classical French sachet for seasoning soups and stocks (which also includes parsley and bay leaf). Dried thyme figures into herbes de provence, the popular spice blend of the South of France.
  • According to The Spice Lover’s Guide to Herbs and Spices by Tony Hill, both Cajun and Creole dishes favor thyme, probably because of its ready availability as a wild species in the earliest days of settlement of the Louisiana territory.
  • In Shakespeare’s 17th century tragedy Hamlet, Ophelia, who has gone mad in the wake of the death of her father, Polonius, refers to our beloved twig: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember!”
  • In England, where it was likely introduced in the late 11th century, rosemary figured into wedding ceremonies as a symbol of fidelity.
  • Rosemary oil was first distilled in the 14th century and used as a perfume called Queen of Hungary Water. For centuries, it was regarded as an all-purpose panacea, easing a variety of maladies from toothaches to indigestion.
    Cultivation

As mentioned earlier, both herbs trace back to the mint family, also known as the Lamiaceae or Labiatae family. Botanically, rosemary is known as rosmarinus officinalis and thyme as thymus vulgaris.

Both plants like a temperate climate and tend to flourish in spring and summer, when they'll flower and beckon the honeybees.  Although neither likes the extreme heat, rosemary tends to be more tolerant of chilly weather, as long as the temperature doesn’t dip too far below freezing.

As you may have noticed, twiggy herbs have stayed true to their wild origins and remain backyard or small-scale farming crops and have yet to be looped into the  industrial system (unlike cilantro and other leafy crops).

Environmental Impact

Because of their continued small-scale and homegrown status, twiggy herbs are absent from the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, at least for the time being.

Over the years shopping at farmers' markets, I've noticed that growers uphold their commitment to seasonality and bundle twiggy herbs for sale only when it’s their time. If you're lucky enough to have a market still open for Thanksgiving shopping, you may notice bundles of rosemary, thyme and sage, just in the nick of time.

At the supermarket, you'll see plastic clamshell containers of herbs, which are typically expensive and often past their peak. Buyer beware.

Of course you can avoid all the plastic and grow your own twigs!  An herb container is a perfect project for aspiring or first-time gardeners.

Seasonality

Now’s the time for twiggy herbs — and longer if you live in a temperate climate. Once the temperature dips into the 20s, your twigs may surrender until next year.

Nutrition

Both rosemary and thyme deliver on the nutritional front: One teaspoon of ground thyme is a good source of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin A. One teaspoon of dried rosemary does all that, and adds magnesium and Vitamin C!

Rosemary also delivers on the polyphenol/antioxidant front. It’s rich in rosmarinic acid which fights inflammation and carnosol and rosmanol, polyphenols with anti-carcigenic powers. Next time you fire up the grill, chop some rosemary into those burgers or roasted potatoes. It’s like a coat of armor.

What to Look for/What to Do with It

You want twigs with perky green leaves or needles, nothing brown or dried up.

Storage

Keep twigs in their dirt and snip when ready to use. For purchased bundles (especially those sold in plastic), place in a small jar filled with water and keep on the counter.

Twigs don’t like moisture so resist the urge to wrap in a damp towel and store in the refrigerator.

Usage

To remove herbs from twigs, your hands are better, more exacting tools than kitchen shears. With one hand holding the twig, place the other at the top of the twig and slide your fingers along the length of the twig. Greenery should glide right off.

Typically I like using whole sprigs of thyme to add layers of flavor to sauces, beans, soups and stews, and removing before serving. Because rosemary is more assertive, I usually chop finely and mix with garlic, salt and often lemon zest. Rosemary loves playing with fat, which is why it pairs well with roasted meats and olive oil.

Recipe

My new favorite way of celebrating rosemary (besides sticking a twig in my bathwater) is the lentil pate from my new cookbook, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations. I promise you, this will kick chopped liver to the curb — and the rosemary has a lot to do with it.

PS: 1 tablespoon fresh herbs equals 1 teaspoon dried

Lentil Pâté

Excerpted from The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations by Kim O'Donnel by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

1 cup dried brown or green lentils
3 cups water
2 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup peeled and thinly sliced shallot (about 4 bulbs)
1⁄4 cup bourbon or cognac  (booze-free option: apple cider)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary (from at least 2 sprigs)
1⁄2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
tools: Food processor or stand blender

Here’s What You Do:

Place the lentils, water, and garlic in a medium-size saucepan. The water should be about 2 inches above the lentils. Add more as needed. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook at a simmer until tender to the bite, 30 to 35 minutes. Season with 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt.

While the lentils cook, melt the butter in a 9- or 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallot, stir  to coat with the butter, and cook until thick, jamlike, and caramelized, 20 to 25 minutes. Lower the heat if the shallot begins to char. Increase the heat and add the booze (or apple cider), allowing it to evaporate, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the rosemary, nutmeg, and the remaining 1⁄4 teaspoon of the salt, then turn off the heat.

Drain the lentils and transfer to a baking sheet to cool in a single layer for 10 minutes. Make sure you bring along the cooked garlic.

Transfer the shallot mixture to the bowl of a food processor or stand blender and blend, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the lentils and garlic, and blend until you have a creamy mixture with as few lumps as possible.

Season with the black pepper to taste (and more salt if needed), and scoop into a 4-inch ramekin or four-edged dish. (The spread looks more pâtélike in a shaped dish than freestyle  in a cereal bowl.) Place in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes; the pâté deepens in flavor when slightly chilled.

Serve with toast points or baguette slices, or with carrot, celery, or jicama sticks, or endive leaves.

Makes a little over 2 cups pâté.

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