Homegrown herbs expand flavorful possibilities

Diane Greene can’t seem to grow lemongrass in Southern Nevada.

“I killed that off a couple of times,” she said. “It doesn’t do the cold.”

But she doesn’t seem too upset about it. Maybe that’s because she successfully grows 30 to 40 other herbs.

“Everything from bay laurel to basil to chervil to chives, you can grow practically everything here,” she said.

The effort is worth it, local chefs say, for the difference fresh herbs make in their creations — especially, said Mike Wolf, in the case of basil, where the difference between fresh and dried is “night and day.”

“Whenever you take any living thing and you remove it from the stem, it begins to die,” said Wolf, executive chef of Serendipity 3 at Caesars Palace. “The fresher it is, obviously the more flavor you’re going to get out of it — especially the aromatics. Dried basil is a sin.”

Wolf has an herb garden right on the Strip, on resort property. But other chefs rely on their herb gardens at home.

Debra Mitchell, executive pastry chef at Treasure Island, said she grows two kinds of parsley plus oregano, basil, French thyme and rosemary, and likes how the simple addition of a fresh herb can transform a dish.

“My favorite use is to marinate diced fresh Roma tomatoes and artichoke hearts in olive oil with basil, oregano and parsley, all chopped,” she said. “And a bit of garlic. This makes a great crostini with a little mozzarella on top.”

Or she’ll toss the same mixture with whole-wheat penne pasta, adding some chickpeas.

Mitchell said she likes “the fresh flavor and just the fact that you pull them right out of your garden, just smelling the aroma when you cut them and bring them in. When I make this mixture, we go out and clip them with scissors. I really enjoy having them in the yard.”

Brian Massie, executive chef for the Light Group, grows herbs on a plot that measures about 30 feet square, he said, and uses them in countless ways. For example, he’ll use opal basil in teas or aromatic water in large dispensers.

He also grows stevia, a natural sweetener.

“I dry it out and grind it up and flavor my iced tea or my water with it,” Massie said. “It’s really sweet.”

He has a wood-burning pizza oven and sometimes uses rosemary in that.

“I’ll burn that stuff if I have too much of it,” he said. “It’s an awesome smell.”

Massie said he also uses rosemary to flavor potatoes, roasted chicken or fish, and Mitchell said she likes to roast chicken with fresh rosemary.

“It’s so simple, and it’s just so good,” she said. “Just salt and pepper the chicken and put some rosemary on it. I love food where you can taste the food and it’s not too overpowered by too many ingredients.”

About the only herb most of them prefer dried is oregano.

“I like dried oregano better,” Wolf said. “We don’t use oregano in our cooking very much. We incorporate it in our marinara sauce that we make here. In that same marinara sauce, we use fresh basil.”

Carla Pellegrino, chef/owner of Bratalian in Henderson and the Meatball Spot at Town Square, said she uses dried oregano for anything that requires high heat, such as her lemon chicken.

“If you do fresh, it doesn’t do anything for it,” Pellegrino said. “For low heat — sauces, marinara — you want to taste the freshness, so I use the fresh oregano. It has that open flavor. The taste is completely different, dry or fresh.”

Pellegrino said she doesn’t use a broad array of herbs.

“In America, you use much more herbs than we actually do in Italy,” she said. “I think Americans like to experiment.”

So, the secret to growing herbs?

“Fertile soil, so you need to add a lot of organic matter to the soil,” Greene said.

Massie achieves that mainly with the byproducts of his kitchen. He buys organic soils and compost, but all of his coffee grounds, apple peels, fruit, potato peels and similar products go into a tumbling composter.

“I use that in the soil,” he said. “It helps enrich the soil and gives it good nitrates and stuff.”

Greene pointed out that some herbs, such as basil, are annuals, which means they have to be planted every year. Sage, rosemary and oregano are perennials, she noted.

“Those types go dormant in the winter and then pop back in the spring,” she said.

Growing them is fairly simple, they said.

“I’m not a Master Gardener or anything,” Mitchell said, “but the herbs we grow look pretty good.”

The chefs say the effort is worth the difference they make in their food.

“They only make it better,” Pellegrino said, “but do not interfere with the flavor.”

And it’s OK to start small. Greene, who said her mother and grandmother had a tradition of gardening, had only a small plot of herbs in her front yard 35 years ago.

“Every season it would grow, and so I just tore out the grass,” she said. About five years ago, she started selling herbs commercially, at the fresh52 farmers market at Tivoli Village on Saturday mornings and through her Facebook page, Herbs by Diane.

“Vegas chefs are fun,” Greene said, “because they really appreciate local, fresh herbs.”

POMMES FRITES WITH PARSLEY BUTTER

½ gallon vegetable oil

8 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled

Sea salt

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut in chunks

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 garlic cloves, minced

Pour the oil into a deep fryer or heavy saucepan to reach halfway up the sides and heat to 325 degrees, using a deep-fry thermometer. While the oil is heating, peel the potatoes and cut them into uniform ¼-inch sticks; feel free to use a knife, mandoline or french fry cutter. Dry the potato sticks thoroughly to keep the hot oil from splattering.

Fry the potatoes in batches so the pot isn’t crowded and the oil temperature does not plummet. Cook the french fries for 3 minutes, until soft but not browned. Remove the fries with a long-handled metal strainer and drain on brown paper bags.

Increase the oil temperature to 375 degrees. Return the par-fried potatoes to the oil and cook a second time for 2 minutes, or until golden and crispy. Drain on fresh brown paper bags then place in a serving bowl. Salt the fries while they’re still hot.

To make the parsley butter, combine the butter, parsley and garlic in a saucepan over medium heat. Swirl the pan around until the butter is completely melted.

Pour the parsley butter over the hot french fries; toss gently to combine.

Serves 8.

— Recipe from the Food Network

FRESH MOZZARELLA WITH RED AND YELLOW TOMATOES AND BASIL VINAIGRETTE

1 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced into ¼-inch-thick slices

2 ripe red tomatoes, sliced into ¼-inch-thick slices

2 ripe yellow tomatoes, sliced into ¼-inch-thick slices

Fresh basil leaves, torn

For vinaigrette:

½ cup fresh basil leaves

¼ cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

Salt and freshly ground pepper

½ cup olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Arrange the cheese and tomatoes on a platter.

Combine all vinaigrette ingredients and blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, to taste, and drizzle over cheese and tomatoes. Garnish with basil leaves.

Serves 4.

— Recipe from the Food Network

MAHI-MAHI WITH

FRESH CILANTRO CHUTNEY

1 cup (packed) chopped fresh cilantro

1 large kiwi, peeled, cubed

¼ cup canned unsweetened coconut milk

1 large garlic clove, peeled

2 teaspoons chopped jalapeno chili

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 6- to 7-ounce mahi-mahi fillets

Ground cumin, to taste

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Coarsely puree first five ingredients in food processor. Season chutney with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle fish with salt, pepper and cumin. Heat oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add fish. Saute until just opaque in center, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to plates; top with chutney.

Serves 2.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

LOBSTER SALAD WITH

FRESH MINT AND LIME

Mint-lime mixture:

1 cup (loosely packed) fresh mint leaves (about 2 ounces)

¾ cup canned unsweetened coconut milk

½ cup fresh cilantro leaves

¼ cup fresh lime juice

¼ cup vegetable oil

1½ teaspoons sugar

1 serrano chili, seeded

Salad:

2 2-pound cooked lobsters

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar

10 cups mixed greens (such as arugula, baby spinach and frisee)

1 cup mixed fresh mint leaves, cilantro leaves and small basil leaves

For mint-lime mixture, puree all ingredients in food processor. Cover and refrigerate. (Can be made 4 hours ahead. Keep chilled.)

Crack lobster tails and claws and remove meat. Cut tail meat into ½-inch-thick medallions; leave claw meat whole.

Whisk oil and vinegar in small bowl. Season vinaigrette with salt and pepper. Toss greens with vinaigrette in large bowl. Divide salad among 4 plates.

Toss lobster with ½ cup mint-lime mixture; divide among plates. Garnish with mint, cilantro and basil leaves. Serve, passing remaining mint-lime mixture separately.

Serves 4.

— Recipe from Bon Appetit

ROASTED FLANK STEAK WITH

OLIVE OIL-HERB RUB

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/8 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1 garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 (1½-pound) flank steak, trimmed

Cooking spray

¼ cup dry red wine

¼ cup fat-free, less-sodium beef broth

Thyme sprigs (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl; set aside.

Sprinkle salt and pepper over steak. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add steak to pan; cook 1 minute on each side or until browned. Add wine and broth; cook 1 minute. Spread herb mixture over steak; place pan in oven. Bake for 10 minutes, or until desired degree of doneness.

Let stand 10 minutes before cutting steak diagonally across the grain into thin slices. Serve with pan sauce. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs, if desired.

Serves 4.

— Recipe from Cooking Light

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at
hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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