Sorry for the bad-pun headline, but I do love fresh thyme. Right about now I’m getting to use a lot of it, for two reasons. First, I’ve got several plants flourishing, both right outside the kitchen door and also along the edge of the vegetable garden. Secondly, I keep cutting bunches to sell at the farm stand, and no one buys it. So it goes. Herbs are not a huge seller, even in the high months, but I stubbornly put them out there, just in case. Secretly, I just like to look at the pretty little bunches arranged in cute cups. Thyme and all the rest of the herbs cut fresh from the garden last a remarkably long time compared to store-bought herbs. (And despite how pretty they look at room temperature in a little container, they will keep even longer in the fridge in a sealed zip-top bag. Dry them well before storing.)
My friends in the test kitchen at Fine Cooking magazine, where hundreds of my recipes have passed through, used to give me a hard time about the amount of fresh thyme I use in my recipes. Everyone groans when they see thyme on the ingredient list, because it means somebody has to pick all the little leaves off the stem. But it’s really not that big of a deal. (Libby actually likes to do it. I told her—in my version of Huck Finn getting Tom Sawyer to paint the picket fence—that it’s an important job for a sous chef.)
The easiest way to pick thyme is to slide two fingers down the stem (from flowering end backwards), stripping the leaves as you go. Usually this works pretty well, but it does depend on the variety of thyme. If you decide to grow your own, pick a variety at the nursery with relatively big leaves spaced far apart on the stem. I usually buy something labeled “common thyme” as opposed to the “English” thyme. There are lots of other varieties; lemon thyme always seems to grow quickly, and I love brushing my hand through it and smelling it in the garden, but it can be overpowering in the kitchen if not used judiciously (it’s good with fish and in chowders).
I use thyme (both the leaves and flowers) in vinaigrettes and herb butters, in fresh tomato sauces and pan sauces, with roasted potatoes and roast chicken, and in egg and pasta dishes, too. But a favorite simple destination for it is a marinated goat cheese appetizer I’ve been making for years. I sprinkle fresh thyme leaves, a little lemon zest, chopped sundried tomatoes and olives over medallions of fresh goat cheese, pour olive oil over them, and let marinate in the fridge for a few hours. I bring the whole thing back to room temperature before serving, and the creamy, herby, salty cheese makes a wonderful summer topping for crackers or crostini. It’s also a quick and easy dish to make for a party. Last night we were invited, along with a few other couples, to a wonderful bouillabaisse dinner at our friends Buck and Kay Goldstein’s open, airy house high on a hill in Chilmark. Buck and Kay have mastered the art of Zen entertaining (and Kay is an amazing cook), so while we arrived with goat cheese appetizer in hand, we left with contentment, full bellies, and the pleasure of having been in good company, too.
Marinated Goat Cheese with Fresh Thyme and Lemon
This is a great hors d’oeuvre to take to a party. Make it a few (or several) hours ahead, refrigerate it, and then let it warm up a bit before putting out with toasted baguette slices or crackers. After serving, there will probably be some olive oil left in the dish. Save it and drizzle it over grilled or toasted bread the next day.
1 4-ounce log fresh goat cheese, sliced into 6 pieces
1 heaping tablespoon fresh thyme leaves and flowers, lightly chopped, plus a sprig or two for garnish
1 packed teaspoon fresh lemon zest
2 teaspoons finely chopped pitted black olives
2 teaspoons finely chopped sundried tomatoes
sea salt or kosher salt
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, more if necessary
Toasted crostini, baguette slices, or crackers for serving
Arrange the slices of goat cheese snugly in one layer in a small shallow dish. (I use a little straight-sided tapas dish for this, but a small gratin dish would work, too.) Sprinkle the thyme, lemon zest, olives and sundried tomatoes over and around the cheese, and sprinkle the cheese with a little sea salt. Pour over the olive oil. It should just barely cover the cheese. Add more if necessary. Let the cheese marinate in the refrigerator for a few hours, and bring it to room temperature about 45 minutes before serving. Put the dish of cheese, the baguette slices or crackers, and a couple small knives out for serving.