Kitchen Call: Fresh mint takes the heat off
Midsummer. My basil plants are flourishing on the deck. Pots of dill generously season my potato salads and stuffed eggs. Hearty sprigs of oregano add the perfect depth to my tomato sauces.
But I have no mint. An essential hot-weather herb, mint’s freshness makes cool seem cooler.
Since the price of those tiny bundles of mint leaves packaged in plastic is astronomical, it was time to try growing it myself. So, I stopped by a farm stand that sells 4-inch pots that already have a head start, all the better for those with a green thumb of questionable dependability.
As I paid for them, the farmer warned that it was an invasive plant. Good. Bring it on. I want to walk over a lawn where sprigs grow between the blades of grass, crushing the plants underfoot and breathing in their fresh aroma. I had that unforgettable experience once on a walk in the woods. I learned that one specific wild variety grows sets out runners along the ground. I’ll settle for enough mint for cooking.
Mint can appear in every course of a meal. Laced into a yogurt appetizer dip or as an ingredient in a main course, minted leg of lamb, and mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert. Mint flavors other sweets like filled chocolates and the holiday candy canes.
In Italy, cooks toss the chopped leaves with freshly shelled peas for an ethereal contorni, or vegetable dish. Cafes in Belgium and The Netherlands brew a soothing mint tea, a small bouquet of stems and leaves steeped in a tall glass mug of hot water, sweetened with honey.
Our own Kentucky Derby famously serves the “mint julep,” a mixture of fine local bourbon and muddled fresh mint leaves, sweetened with sugar syrup, cooled with crushed ice and served in a silver cup.
Cuba recently sent us the mojito, a close relative of the “julep” that substitutes white rum for bourbon.
Think about it: We like the flavor of mint so much that we even brush our teeth with it.
Some cooks store mint in plastic bags for a few days in the refrigerator. It works, but often the leaves turn dark and slimy. I keep a bouquet on a shady windowsill. I pull off the lower leaves and snip a slice from the stems. Then add them to a glass of cool water so they take a big, long drink. The bunch lasts three to five days.
I pick off whole leaves for a green salad of chopped romaine and arugula, thinly sliced cucumber and fennel, with a handful of other whole fresh herb leaves — flat parsley, basil or cilantro — or all three. The salad makes me think of green fireworks with lemon dressing.
There are about 600 different varieties of this herb, the most commonly known, pineapple, spearmint, peppermint, apple, lemon and peppermint. Each one is mellowed by the secondary flavor. Each one hands the cook limitless possibilities.
The hot-weather recipes here involve no cooking, except to boil water.
Makes about 1 cup
Use full-cream yogurt and sour cream for this dip. Serve it with pita or taco chips, a favorite cracker or fresh vegetables, e.g. celery, fennel, red pepper strips, cucumber spears.
1 tablespoon chives, minced
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, minced
1 tablespoon arugula, minced
2 tablespoons fresh mint, minced
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup sour cream
Salt, ground black pepper, to taste
In a bowl, toss together chives, tarragon, arugula, mint and garlic if using. Stir in the yogurt and sour cream. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Bulgur Wheat Salad
Makes 6 servings
Find bulgur wheat in the grains section of the supermarket, packaged or sold in self-serve bins. This basic recipe is often changed up by chefs and home cooks, swapping lemon juice for lime; parsley for cilantro; cooked lentils or quinoa for the soaked bulgur wheat.
1 cup bulgur wheat
1 cup minced flat parsley leaves
1 cup minced scallions, white and green parts
1 cup chopped tomatoes (2 to 3 medium)
1/2cup chopped mint leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
Salt, to taste
Soak the bulgur wheat in cold water to cover for about 30 minutes. It will be tender. Drain well.
Transfer to a large bowl.
Toss together the parsley, scallions, tomatoes and mint leaves. Add to the bulgur wheat and toss again gently. Add the olive oil and lemon juice. Toss again until all is blended. Taste and add salt as needed. Chill for 30 minutes so the flavors blend.
MINTY LEMON ICED TEA
Makes 1 cup
4 to 5 branches of fresh mint, washed and trimmed of roots
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Lavender honey, to taste
Place the fresh mint in a non-reactive bowl. Pour in the boiling water. Allow to cool slightly.
Refrigerate until cold.
Add half the lemon juice. Taste and add more as needed. Fill a tall glass with crushed ice or ice cubes. Transfer the mint to the glass, bending if needed. Add honey to taste.
FIGS WITH MINT, EATEN WITH FINGERS
This special dessert is for adults only.
When you see fresh figs at the market, pick up a few, counting on 3 to 4 per person, depending on size. Wash gently in cool water and dry with a soft towel. (They bruise easily.) Cut off the stems and slice the figs in half lengthwise. Place on a serving platter. Drizzle with Sambuca. Sprinkle fresh chopped mint leaves over the top. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
— Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@gmail.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.