NEW PORT RICHEY
Laurel Keser is all about fresh herbs.
On a sunny afternoon in June she stands in her fragrant kitchen sauteing pork tenderloin in a pineapple-sage wine sauce. The sunflower-yellow kitchen is fragrant with the aroma of cooking and herbs: lemon thyme grows in a pot on the window ledge and rosemary sprouts from miniature vases on the counter and dining table. She has baked sweet and savory rosemary cookies and concocted delicious lavender infused lemonade. Jasmine rice with homemade vegetable stock with roasted vegetables waits on the stove.
You can't help but want to linger and watch her cook.
"When I was 6, my mother cut her finger while cooking and asked if I could finish things up for her — I've been cooking ever since," says Keser, 59, who recently launched A Matter of Thyme Personal Chef Service, which provides in-home cooking for working couples and singles who don't have time to cook. Keser also wrote the cookbook My Favorite Herb: How North America's Great Chefs Savor the Flavor of Herbs, (1999 Callawind Publications), which won a book award from the International Herb Association.
A former food journalist and cooking school administrator, Keser teaches cooking classes at the Rolling Pin Emporium in Brandon. Her next class, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on July 24, is called Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and will offer lessons in how to use fresh herbs in cooking.
"So much has changed with cooking since I was growing up — really in the last 20 years. In the past, people really relied on dried herbs," explains Keser, a warm, friendly woman who wears a polo shirt with her company chef logo, khakis and chef's clogs.
She has filled her own kitchen garden at her small, cheerful home in New Port Richey with fresh herbs and "herb mimics" (wonderful substitutes for the real thing).
Many hang in pots in her carport and emit a lovely potpourri of scent in the hot breeze. Her collection includes thyme, Thai basil, lemon grass, savory, Texas tarragon, parsley, rosemary, dill, pineapple sage, chives, Vietnamese coriander and a lot more.
"We used to joke that we had the best-smelling trash of anyone we knew because of all the clippings we throw in," says Keser, who first became interested in herbs while working as a food writer for a newspaper in New Jersey, where she learned about the South New Jersey chapter of the Herb Society of America.
"I interviewed the woman who started the chapter. She had an herb nursery and classes and I started finding out all kinds of things about herbs."
What's Keser's favorite herb?
"I'm fickle," she says. "I've gone through a parsley and rosemary phase — now I'm really into lavender."
Keser's interest in herbs and cooking blossomed, though her culinary talents were primarily confined to her family.
"After my son grew up, I learned he would have much rather had regular sandwiches in his lunchbox," she says with a laugh.
Keser and her husband, Larry, moved to Pasco County from New Jersey's Camden County area in 2007 to be closer to children and grandchildren. They have nine grandchildren between them, five of whom live in New Port Richey.
"We had planned to spend the next few years looking around while we were on vacation for a place to retire," Keser recalls. But then Larry's job as an executive at a printing company was eliminated during downsizing and "suddenly we didn't have those years to look around."
Since moving to Florida, Keser has become certified in safe food handling at both the employee and management levels. She sought more training from the Personal and Private Chef Institute. She finally launched her home chef business this spring because she thinks many dual-career couples and singles don't have time to cook but want to eat good meals in their homes.
Here's how it works: Keser differs from a private chef because she is not employed solely by one individual or family. She comes to your house and cooks in your kitchen — usually one day a week. She brings fresh ingredients, pots, pans and utensils and cooks several entrees and side dishes from scratch. She packages, labels and stores all dishes (ample freezer space is a must) and leaves easy-to-follow heating instructions.
The best part is that she cleans up when she's finished.
You can't chat with Keser too much when she's cooking. Anyone who likes to dabble in the kitchen knows that the culinary world is divided into two camps: cooks who can talk while they cook, and those who can't.
Keser likes to joke that she falls into the latter category.
If you're home while she's cooking, it's probably best not to loiter in the kitchen quizzing her about how to best grow cilantro in Florida. She'll be happy to visit before or after. But while she's whipping up one of her recipes, she says: "I'll need to focus on preparing your food."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at email@example.com.