Fresh thyme is surely one of the loveliest flavors of spring.

In Greece, spring lamb that has fed on wild thyme is a seasonal delicacy, and is for many an essential part of the Easter feast.

But lamb isn’t the only thing that pairs well with this lovely herb.

It enhances most spring produce, such as asparagus, artichokes, green peas, leeks, scallions and the early yellow squash that are coming into our markets now. It’s also a great match for chicken, pork and shellfish, especially shrimp.

The fly in the ointment for this herb is that it’s arguably the most tedious of them all to deal with. There’s no way to make stripping its tiny leaves from its often fragile stems fun.

 

But here’s a tip: If the stem is tender enough to break when you’re stripping off the leaves, it’s tender enough to chop up and stir into the pot.

I’m aware that there are dainty food writers who claim the stem can be a little bitter. Well, if they really have a palate sensitive enough to detect bitterness in the minuscule amount of stem that will end up in the pot, then bless their hearts. My tongue is just not that refined.

If you still find stripping it too tedious for words, then here’s another tip: If the dish simmers for at least half an hour but less than an hour, throw in the thyme stem and all. It’ll lend all the flavor it’s going to, and the leaves will start to fall off the stem by themselves, saving you the trouble. All you have to do is take out the stem and throw it away.

I have a young friend who hates stripping thyme leaves so much he uses only dried thyme, saying the price he will pay in flavor is still worth it.

But here’s yet another tip: Once they cook for more than an hour, fresh herbs lose their edge anyway and taste no different from a dried one. In short, going to the trouble of stripping fresh leaves for a long-simmering sauce or stew is a waste of time (no pun intended). So, in dishes that do undergo that long simmer, follow my friend’s lead and use dried thyme.

The same is true for a marinade. If the food is going to marinate for several hours or overnight, use dried instead of fresh thyme in that marinade and save yourself the pain.

There are a number of varieties of this herb, but unless you grow your own, the only one you’re likely to find specifically labeled in the market is lemon thyme, which doesn’t exactly taste like lemon, but does have a citrusy tang. Use it as you would the regular herb.

Regardless of the type you use and how you use it, this herb is the very essence of the season and we ought to enjoy it to the fullest while we can. Here are a few great ways to do so.

 

 

Rolled Pork Tenderloin with Prosciutto and Thyme Stuffing

Pork tenderloin is often not long on flavor, but thyme and prosciutto really bring out the best in it and give it a really lovely fresh spring lift. Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• 1 large leek

• 1 large pork tenderloin

• Whole black pepper in a mill

• 3 thin slices lean prosciutto

• 4-6 tablespoons unsalted butter

• ¼ cup finely chopped shallots or yellow onion (about 1 small shallot or half a small onion)

• ½ cup thinly sliced scallions or other slender green onions

• 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

• ½ cup fine soft breadcrumbs

• Salt

• About 1 cup homemade chicken broth or low-sodium canned broth

• ¾ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

• Whole thyme sprigs or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

 

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Trim leek, split lengthwise, and wash under cold running water, bending back layers to remove all grit between. Slice both white and greens.

2. Trim tenderloin of silver skin and fat and remove narrow end and upper lobe at large end. Finely chop trimmings (can be done in food processor, pulsing machine until finely chopped but is better done by hand).

3. Lay tenderloin on flat work surface and butterfly as follows: make cut down one side to within ½-inch of bottom. Open flat, and carefully cut horizontally along inside of thicker side to within ½-inch of other side. Open flat, cover with plastic wrap, and lightly pound to even thickness. Season with pepper and completely cover with single layer of prosciutto.

4. Put 1 tablespoon butter and shallots in large, ovenproof skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Sauté, stirring often, until translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add leek and sauté until wilted, about 2 minutes, then add chopped pork trimmings and sauté until it loses raw red color. Add scallions and toss until hot through, about ½ minute. Turn off heat and add thyme and crumbs. Moisten as needed with broth, season well with salt and pepper, and toss to mix.

5. Spread stuffing evenly over prosciutto layer on tenderloins to within ½-inch of edges. Roll up and truss securely with twine. Season outside lightly with salt and generously with pepper.

6. Wipe out pan in which stuffing was prepared and add 1 tablespoon butter. Warm over medium heat until hot. Put in tenderloin, and raise heat to medium high. Brown well on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Pour about ¼ cup wine or vermouth over tenderloin.

7. Transfer pan to oven and bake until center of roll reaches 155 degrees, about 15-20 minutes longer. Transfer to platter, cover with foil, and let rest 10 minutes before carving.

8. Meanwhile, put pan over direct medium heat. Deglaze with ½ cup wine or vermouth and let boil, stirring and scraping pan, until reduced by half. Add 1 cup broth and bring to boil. Cook until reduced by two-thirds, stirring often. Remove pan from heat and whisk in 2-3 tablespoons butter.

9. Remove twine from pork and slice crosswise, about ½-inch thick. Arrange on platter or divide among serving plates, drizzle with sauce, and serve.

 

Braised Lamb Shoulder Chops with Thyme

Shoulder chops are bony and not as showy as pricier rib chops, but their flavor is richer. Thyme makes even the mature lamb we get in our markets taste like young spring lamb. Instead of being rare, as rib chops usually are, these braise until they’re fork tender, which actually only takes an hour, or even a little less. Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• 4 to 6 bone-in lamb shoulder chops (sometimes labeled steaks), cut 1-inch thick

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• ¼ cup shallot (about 1 medium or 2 small), finely chopped

• 2 small cloves or 1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced

• All-purpose flour spread on a plate

• About 1 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

• 3-4 large sprigs thyme, plus 2 teaspoons thyme leaves for garnish

 

Directions:

1. Trim excess fat from each chop and dry well with paper towels. Heat oil in a deep 3-quart braising pan or lidded, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Season lamb with salt and pepper. When oil is hot, lightly coat chops with flour and add to pan. Brown on all sides, turning once, about 4-6 minutes.

2. Remove lamb and add shallot. Sauté until beginning to color, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir until fragrant, about 10-15 seconds. Add 1 cup wine and deglaze pan, stirring and scraping to remove cooking residue and bring to a boil.

3. Return lamb to pan, add thyme sprigs and if wine doesn’t come halfway up sides of chops, add enough to make it do so. Bring back to boil, reduce heat to gentle simmer, and cover tightly. Braise 1 hour, making sure to keep heat very low so that liquid barely bubbles. Check from time to time to make sure liquid doesn’t evaporate too much. If it does, add a spoonful or so of water as needed. Do not add more wine.

4. Remove lamb to platter. Remove thyme sprigs and discard. If pan juices are too thin, raise heat and briefly cook until thickened. If too thick, add spoonful of water and bring back to simmer. Pour pan juices over lamb, sprinkle with thyme leaves, and serve warm.

Alternate finish for more refined presentation: This is a bit more troublesome, but not as messy to eat. After removing chops from pan, remove pan from heat. Let chops cool, bone them, and cut meat into bite-sized pieces. Return pan to heat and bring pan juices back to simmer. Return cut-up lamb to pan, stirring to coat. If sauce is too thick, add a spoonful or so of water. Simmer until lamb is heated through, pour onto platter and sprinkle with thyme leaves. Serve warm.

 

Chicken Cutlets with Lemon and Thyme

Boneless chicken breasts can be dull, but they’re really easy to cook and are a blank canvas when you want to be creative in a hurry. Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• 4 6-ounce, or 2 10- to 12-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts

• Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill

• 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil

• Instant-blending flour (such as Wondra), in a shaker

• ¼ cup shallot or yellow onion (about 1 small shallot or ½ small onion), finely minced

• 1 cup dry white wine or vermouth

• 1 lemon, halved

 

Directions:

1. Lay chicken breast flat on a flexible plastic cutting board and cut in half horizontally, making 2 cutlets of roughly equal size. If using larger breasts, cut each in half crosswise. Cover with plastic wrap and lightly beat out to thickness of scaloppine. Season with salt and pepper. Finely chop 1 tablespoon thyme and sprinkle over chicken, then press into surface.

2. Put butter and oil in small, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, but not smoking, dust enough cutlets to fill pan on both sides with flour, shake off excess, and slip into pan. Cook until on both sides, turning once, about 3-4 minutes, in batches if necessary. Remove to plate or platter as they are browned.

3. Add shallot and sauté until translucent and beginning to color, about 2 minutes. Add wine and deglaze pan, stirring and scraping to loosen cooking residue. Bring to boil, add juice from ½ lemon, and return chicken to pan. Add 1 teaspoon of thyme, adjust heat to medium, and simmer, turning once, until sauce is lightly thickened and chicken is cooked through, about 2-3 minutes.

4. Remove cutlets to a warm platter. Taste sauce and adjust lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and pour over cutlets. Sprinkle with remaining thyme leaves and serve at once.

 

Baked Macaroni with Thyme and Fontina

A fresh twist on that old favorite comfort food, baked mac and cheese. Serves 6.

 

Ingredients:

• Salt

• 1 pound elbow macaroni

• 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

• 3 cups whole milk, heated

• Whole white pepper in a mill

• Whole nutmeg in a grater

• 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

• ½ cup sliced scallions

• 1½ cups coarsely grated fontina cheese

• 1 cup fine grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

 

Directions:

1. Butter 3-quart (9-inch by 13-inch) casserole dish. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 F. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in heavy-bottomed 6-8 quart pot. Stir in small handful salt and then macaroni. Cook, stirring occasionally, for half recommended time on package, drain, and pour into prepared casserole.

2. Meanwhile, melt butter in heavy-bottomed 2½-quart pot or skillet over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook until bubbly, whisking constantly. Slowly whisk in warm milk and cook, whisking or stirring constantly, until thick and beginning to bubble.

3. Season well with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg, and simmer 3-4 minutes, stirring often. Turn off heat, pour sauce over macaroni, and toss to mix.

4. Set aside ½ cup fontina and ¼ cup Parmigiano and add remaining cheese, thyme, and scallions to pasta. Gently toss to mix, smooth top, and sprinkle with reserved cheeses. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving warm.

 

Pasta with Butter, Thyme, and Scallions

Here, the fresh thyme is allowed to simply shine on its own. The only “cooking” it gets is from the heat of the freshly cooked pasta, which is just enough to bring out its full fragrance. Serves 4 to 6.

 

Ingredients:

• 4 small, thin scallions or very young, thin spring onions

• Salt

• 1 pound thin spaghetti (or spaghetti or angel hair)

• ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

• 4-5 tablespoons best quality unsalted butter

• 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

• Whole black pepper in a mill

 

Directions:

1. Bring 4 quarts water to rolling boil in large, heavy-bottomed pot. Wash, drain, and trim scallions, removing discolored leaves. Pat dry and thinly slice.

2. When water is boiling, add small handful of salt and stir in spaghetti, separating strands as they soften. Cook until al dente, firm to bite but cooked through.

3. Have ready warm serving bowl. Reserve 3-4 tablespoons of cooking water and quickly drain pasta, taking care not to over-drain, and immediately add to bowl. Add half the cheese, scallions, and thyme. Toss rapidly until cheese is melted and forming a creamy coating on pasta. If it seems too dry, add a spoonful or so of cooking water. Season lightly with pepper and toss.

4. Add 2 tablespoons butter and half remaining cheese and toss until butter is melted. Add 2 more tablespoons butter and remaining cheese, and toss until butter is melted and pasta is evenly coated. If it looks a bit dry, add another spoonful or so of cooking water and toss until incorporated. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, toss, and serve at once with more cheese passed separately.