At this point in the summer, my cooking needs refreshing. Good thing the mint bursts its boundaries in the herb garden.
There’s a reason most of us enjoy mint in our toothpaste and chewing gum. It cleans the palate in a way no other ingredient can.
There are many varieties of mint — smooth-leaved, crinkly, variegated, fuzzy, shiny. The square stems identify the plants as members of the mint family. Peppermint and spearmint are my favorites for all-purpose kitchen companions. We plant them as borders around the garden and in pots on the deck for easy harvesting. The plants thrive in sun and shade, and they aren’t fussy about soil quality or frequent watering. Starter plants are inexpensive. Even this deep into summer, it’s not too late to get them in the ground; you’ll have mint sprigs well into the fall.
For those without herb gardens, farmers markets, produce stands and ethnic groceries sell bundles on the cheap. Supermarkets offer little packets that last well in the fridge.
I harvest mint sprigs with scissors and then rinse them well under cool running water. Shake off the water and spread the sprigs on a clean towel to dry. Put the dry sprigs into a zippered plastic bag with a damp square of paper toweling. Close the bag and refrigerate for up a week.
I stock pitchers of water, laced with several sprigs of mint, for a cold refresher I drink all day long. I tuck tiny mint leaves into green salads and fruit bowls for a surprise between bites. Chopped mint in sour cream or plain yogurt makes a delicious dip for cut veggies. Freeze it into ice cubes to spike mojitos and gin-and-tonics with a double dose of mint.
Chopped and added to soft butter, the spread refreshes morning toast or pancakes and dinner’s steamed vegetables and grilled fish. Baked sweet potatoes topped with a sesame mint butter prove so delicious they are often all we have for dinner after a summer’s walk.
When the garden yields an abundance of mint, I make a variety of condiments to have on hand to perk up my cooking all week long. The hoisin-mint marinade recipe that follows transforms fast-cooking pork tenderloin and chicken pieces. Leftover marinade can enliven grain salads and sandwiches.
If you make no other homemade salad dressing this summer, try the avocado mint version included here. Refreshing, creamy and tangy, the mixture tastes great on hearty green salads — even kale — as well as tomato slices and watermelon chunks or as a veggie dip. I dollop it on grilled fish and sliced eggplant. Try it instead of mayonnaise for a fantastic chicken or egg salad.
If nothing else, add it to a pitcher of sun tea. Then sit on the deck and thank your lucky stars for such a refreshing way to cool off.