Lemon Thyme Chicken

Madelin Wajda
Willow Pond Farm

If you are already growing the basic culinary herbs, and even if you’re not, it’s time to celebrate National Herb Week (May 8-14) by expanding your horizons. The Herb of the Year 2006 has been designated scented pelargoniums, which may be already "thinking outside the box" for some as a culinary herb. If you’ve already tried ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’, and liked the flavor, you may want to experiment with some of the other lemon geraniums. Some of the most popular varieties are ‘Mabel Grey’ (a nice plant for topiary work), ‘Fingerbowl’ (P. crispum) or its larger cousin ‘Prince Rupert’ which also comes in a variegated form. Scented geraniums are a zone 9 plant; therefore in our area, they should be considered an annual or a houseplant which can be grown outside in the summer. They need good drainage and good air circulation, as well as full sun to semi-shade. Water when dry and fertilize monthly. Indoors, watch for whitefly and treat with insecticidal soap. The leaves have a subtle lemon flavor that goes well with chicken or fish dishes.

From lemon geranium it is but a short step to the other lemon herbs of which there are about 18 in all. The one perhaps known best is lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, a member of the mint family; that should be no surprise to anyone who has watched it take over the garden. Although the flowers attract the bees, lemon balm is the ideal plant for outdoor sitting areas, as it repels mosquitoes better than any other herb. It is hardy to zone 4-5 and starts easily from seed but needs well-drained soil. Lemon balm grows best in full sun, although it will survive in shade; in fact, the variegated and golden varieties keep their color better in the shade. The flavor of lemon balm is strongest fresh or frozen, and it dries easily on trays. Harvest the entire plant just as it is coming into flower down to two inches above the ground. Lemon balms make a very soothing tea, as well a welcome addition to green or fruit salads, chicken salads, punch, or fish dishes.

There are many varieties of lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus), including ‘Archer’s Gold’, ‘Lemon Frost’, and ‘Citriodorus’. The best way to choose one is to let your nose be your guide. Thyme is hardy to zones 5-9 and requires well-drained soil because it is susceptible to fungal diseases. It will grow in full sun to partial shade. Thyme can be grown from seeds, as well as from root divisions or cuttings that are best done in the spring. The leaves can be harvested as needed or the entire plant can be cut back to about 2 inches above the ground in mid-summer. The plant will grow back again, but taking a second harvest will weaken it for the winter. Mulching after the first hard frost will help keep it from heaving. Watch for spider mites. Most culinary thymes need to be replaced every two or three years because they become woody and straggly. Here is a delicious recipe for using lemon thyme:

  • Lemon Thyme Chicken (Serves 4)
  • 1 - 1 1/2 lbs. boneless chicken breast 12-15 sprigs of thyme or lemon thyme
  • 4 large garlic cloves mashed 2 T. lemon juice
  • 2 T. olive oil Freshly ground black pepper
  • Salt (optional)

Place chicken in a dish large enough to hold it all in one layer. Break thyme sprigs in half and bruise them. Scatter over chicken with garlic. Toss with olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for 6-8 hours, turning 2-3 times. Prior to cooking brush marinade off chicken. Grill over medium hot coals (or in broiler) for about 10 minutes. Turn frequently and sprinkle with a little salt when almost done. Note: Other chicken parts and skinless chicken can also be used in this flavorful dish.

My very favorite lemon herb is lemon verbena Aloysia triphylla. It is the strongest-scented of the lemon herbs and a delight just to brush against. It is a deciduous woody shrub which, in a pot, can grow to be 5 feet. Lemon verbena is best propagated by woody cuttings taken in late summer. It is a heavy feeder and likes regular applications of fish emulsion; pinching the tips of the plant will keep it bushy. Since it is not frost-hardy, lemon verbena is best grown in a pot in full sun and in rich, moist soil. Bring the pot inside before the first frost. Around the holidays in December, the plant will generally drop all its leaves. Keep the pot on a sunny windowsill and water when dry. About the middle of February, it will begin to sprout tiny new leaves. Watch your plant for spider mites and whiteflies and spray with insecticidal soap when necessary. You can harvest leaves at any time; they will dry quickly in a basket. The flavor of lemon verbena is about twice as strong as lemon balm and makes wonderful tea as well as adding to the flavor of fish, poultry, salad dressings, desserts and beverages. If using fresh lemon verbena in the following recipe, triple the amount needed:

  • Lemon Verbena Pound Cake Serves 12
  • 2 1/2 Cups Flour 1 1/2 Cups Sugar
  • 3 tsp Baking Powder 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 Tbls. Crushed, Dried Lemon Verbena 3/4 Cup Orange Juice
  • 3/4 Cup Vegetable Oil 2 tsp Lemon Extract
  • 2 tsp Dried Lemon Peel 4 Eggs

Blend all ingredients by hand until moistened, and then mix for 3 minutes at medium speed. Pour batter into two greased and floured 4 1/2 by 8 1/2 inch loaf pans and put in pre-heated 325 degree oven. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on rack before removing from pan. Alternatively, bake in 5 small loaf pans for about 30 minutes.

Celebrate National Herb Week by trying a new, lemony herb. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade or tea or chicken or pound cake or any of the other delicious dishes that benefit from the addition of the lemon herbs.

Read other recipes from the garden