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Elements / One ingredient, one dish

Thyme has made itself an indelible part of cooking around the world, partly through sheer persistence.

The perennial plant keeps emerging from the soil unless it's ruthlessly eradicated, meaning it often is among the first sprigs to emerge in a spring herb garden.

Its flavor is stronger dried than fresh, but the fresh herb has more complexity. Strip its leaves from stems with a thumbnail, unless using whole sprigs in stews.

Thyme is an essential part of the French bouquet garni, used to flavor soups and stews. It's also an integral component of zaatar, the Middle Eastern spice mixture, along with toasted sesame seeds, oregano and sumac.

Back in time: Thyme's captivating aroma made it a natural incense for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and historians have found it included in Egyptian embalming rites. Its name comes from the Greek word for "to burn as a sacrifice."

In this recipe inspired by one from Cooks Illustrated, thyme adds its herbal character to crispy baked pork chops.

>Crispy pork chops

1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon salt

8 pork chops, 1/2 to 1 inch thick

1 cup panko crumbs

1 cup plain bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated Romano, Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon dry mustard (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 2 teaspoons dried

6 egg whites

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup plus 4 tablespoons flour

Cooking spray

Lemon wedges, for serving

In large bowl, dissolve 1/2 cup salt in 2 quarts water. Submerge pork chops in this brine for 30-60 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat baking rack with cooking spray and place on sheet pan.

In a large bowl, mix both crumbs with 1 teaspoon salt, cheese, pepper, garlic, onion powder, paprika, mustard (if using), and thyme.

In another large bowl, beat water into egg whites. Beat in 4 tablespoons flour, one tablespoon at a time.

Put 1/2 cup flour on large plate. Drain chops. Coat chops in flour, shaking off excess, then dip in egg wash, shaking off excess, then coat with crumbs, pressing to make crumbs stick. Place on baking rack. (For extra crispy, repeat egg wash and crumb steps.)

Bake chops until browned and firm, about 20 minutes for 1/2 -inch-thick pieces. Nick one and peek inside to confirm they're done to your taste.

Serve immediately with lemon wedges. Moisture will start to soften crust in minutes.