When it comes to many things in life, freshness counts. And nowhere is that more evident than in your kitchen where fresh ingredients are the key to great flavor.
Area herb gardeners know this well. A quick trip to the yard can yield handfuls of basil, rosemary or thyme that impart a unique savoriness to a dish and make dried herbs pale in comparison.
Home cooks are learning this as well, said Carlos Fernandez, a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas.
"Cooking has really taken off in the past 10 years and people are more aware about the advantages of cooking with fresh herbs," he said.
Fernandez credits the popularity of cooking shows on TV and the availability at area grocery stores for the increased awareness and use of fresh herbs.
One of his favorite herbs to use is fresh thyme. "It's very versatile. It has a flavor that closely lends itself to savory or sweet dishes. Some other herbs only have certain uses."
Fernandez said thyme can be used with practically any seafood, including shellfish such as shrimp or clams, chicken, beef or pork. It also is a good palate cleanser when incorporated into a granita or sorbet with lemon, cucumber, ginger and honey.
He also likes to use thyme in marinades or to infuse oils with flavor.
Other herbs that are especially flavorful when used fresh are basil, sage, rosemary, parsley, bay leaves and cilantro.
Fernandez, who has been in the culinary industry for 33 years and a chef-instructor at Le Cordon Bleu for four years, said there are numerous ways to incorporate fresh herbs into any dish. For example, basil leaves can be cut in a chiffonade and added to cream sauces or used as a garnish, or chopped and mixed with other herbs, butter and bread crumbs to create a seasoned crust. Fresh thyme can be added along with bay leaves and parsley to braise short ribs. Most herbs can be blanched and then added to oil to infuse it with flavor and color.
Whether gardening or cooking, giving a little TLC to your efforts ends in great results. Fernandez and Diane Greene, who grows herbs in the yard of her Boulder City home, can attest to that.
"Cooking is all about love," Fernandez said.
Fernandez loves to use fresh herbs in the dishes he prepares at the college and at home.
Greene lends her caring nature to her multiple gardens and then shares her bounty with others. Through her company, Herbs by Diane, she helps those who lack the space or ability to have gardens get the freshest herbs as they possibly can.
She sells many of her herbs to area chefs and participates in the Molto Vegas Farmer's Market. Herbs she brings to the market are usually harvested the day before the Thursday market.
She said that, depending on the type and variety, her herbs should remain fresh for two or three weeks in the refrigerator.
Fernandez said delicate herbs, such as parsley and cilantro, should be kept in water, while hardier herbs, including basil and thyme, can be wrapped in a dry paper towel and kept in a refrigerator's vegetable drawer. Too much moisture will shorten their life span and usefulness, he said.
Greene began gardening about 30 years ago as a way to provide fresh vegetables for her family. Today, she grows enough to share and devotes much of her attention to her vast assortment of herbs.
Not content to grow just basil, Greene has planted four types of basil in her garden. She also has four types of oregano, two types of chives and parsley, a variety of thyme, as well as cilantro, dill, sage, tarragon and fennel.
Among her more popular offerings are sunflower greens, small plants from emerging sunflowers that have the same nutty flavor as the seeds.
Greene began her business after an exceptionally good crop of garlic.
"I first started with a few herbs here and there for my family. Then I had an overabundance of garlic and decided to sell it on eBay."
Greene credits part of her success in the garden to the good soil surrounding her home in Boulder City. She also makes her own compost to help enrich the soil.
Plus, she said the garden in the front yard at her home is in a microclimate protected by huge mulberry trees in her neighbor's yard. Greene also has gardens at her father's nearby home, where she uses shade cloth to help protect her crops there from the harsh desert sun.
She irrigates her gardens with a combination of a drip system and overhead sprinklers.
Fernandez, who grows a variety of herbs in his yard, said a little shade is ideal for herbs such as rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano and parsley.