Mint helps keep summer cool and fresh

On warm June days, mint offers a burst of cool flavor to beverages like iced tea, a bourbon drink or a mint julep. It’s also good in vegetable or meat dishes and adds a delicious zip to salads of fruit or grain.

Even in our cool climate, several species of these aromatic, vigorous perennials grow wild in the lawn. Whether it’s the lance-shaped, purplish leaves of peppermint, the rounder, grayish leaves of spearmint, or brown-stemmed chocolate mint, growing it is the easy part. Figuring out what to do with all that mint is more of a challenge, since just a little fresh mint goes a long way to make mundane dishes exciting,.

Mentha (mint) is a genus of about 25 to 30 species of flowering plants in the family Lamiaceae that grow wild throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. The leaves often feel soft and downy. They have serrated edges and are arranged in opposite pairs on erect stems. In our region the herb is usually no more than a foot tall, but in warmer climates like Greece or the southern U.S. they can be 3- or 4-foot shrubs. Mint’s delicate flowers bloom in clusters, ranging in color from white to pink or purple.

The herb is an integral spice of many ethnic cuisines. Mint chutney provides a cool counterpoint to fiery Indian curries. It is a central ingredient in the Lebanese bulgur wheat salad, tabbouleh. The British have mint jelly, and mint juleps are the traditional treat for the Kentucky Derby.

But nowhere is mint more common than in Greece. For thousands of years Greeks have incorporated the herb in perfumery, religious ceremonies, medicine and cuisine. In Ancient Greece, it was used to scent dinner tables as well as bathing water. Greek Orthodox priests still offer a blessing with bunches of fresh, fragrant mint dipped in holy water. In the Greek kitchen, it is used in everything from salads, meat and pasta to drinks, desserts, cakes and cookies. Tzatziki, a cool, refreshing salad made with cucumbers, mint, yogurt and other seasonings, is almost ubiquitous during the hot Mediterranean summer. Cheese pies, ground meat dishes, vegetable fillings, and salads are all flavored with mint.

Mint has been used to treat numerous ailments for thousands of years. Its cool, fresh fragrance can relieve tiredness, anxiety, frustration and headache pain. A common stomach remedy, it works as a muscle relaxer, soothing the stomach and combating indigestion, gas, vomiting, nausea and irritable bowel syndrome. It helps to open congested respiratory passages and possesses antimicrobial qualities, so is used to treat colds and fever. A popular breath freshener, it reduces formation of plaque. Menthol, an active ingredient in peppermint, has a numbing, cooling effect and is often part of skin creams and lotions. It can help to relieve hives and rashes as well as muscle and joint pain.

During the summer, tear a few leaves of mint to add to salads, fruit desserts and iced tea. The perky flavor goes well with meats like lamb or chicken, grains, salads, fruit, desserts (think mint chocolate chip ice cream), cool summer beverages and hot mint tea.

Quinoa Salad with Spring Herbs and Veggies

Makes a nice light

lunch or supper.

Ingredients:

Grain:

1 cup Quinoa

2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dressing:

1 Tablespoon olive oil

2 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice or balsamic vinegar

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon mustard

Salad:

2 eggs, hard cooked

1 cup diced ham

1 cup green onions, sliced (green and white parts)

3/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1/2 cup chopped fresh arugula

1/2 cup fresh minced parsley

1/2 pound asparagus

2 small carrots, shredded (about 1 cup)

2 Tablespoons crumbled feta cheese, for garnish

Directions:

Place quinoa, water and salt in pan. Bring to a boil, lower to simmer, and cook about 15 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender.

While quinoa cooks, mix together the dressing ingredients (olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt, crushed garlic and mustard). I crush garlic with salt in a mortar; you can also use a garlic press or a microplane for the garlic.

When quinoa has finished cooking, fluff with a fork and place in large salad bowl. Stir dressing ingredients into cooked quinoa. Let sit while you prepare the remaining ingredients; this helps the flavors to blend.

Hard cook the eggs, peel and chop. Dice ham. Rinse green onions, cut off ends, and slice into lengths about 1/4″. Rinse asparagus, cut off tough ends and slice the stalks in 1/2″ or 1″ lengths. Shred carrots and chop herbs.

Stir everything together. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Garnish each serving with crumbled feta, if desired, and add a sprig of fresh mint on the side.

Serves three to four.

Minty Iced Tea

Ingredients:

1 quart water

2 black tea bags

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves

Optional sweetener: 1 Tablespoon honey, maple syrup or sugar (or to taste)

4 sprigs fresh mint

1 lemon

Directions:

Bring water to a boil. Place tea, optional sweetener and mint in pitcher; pour water over and stir to dissolve sugar or honey. I like mine unsweetened; you can play around with honey or sugar to your own taste.

Steep 10 minutes. Remove teabags; refrigerate until chilled. (Note: You can also make sun tea by placing water, tea bags and mint leaves in a glass pitcher and leaving it in a warm, sunny spot for six to eight hours).

Slice four slices from center of lemon.

To serve, add ice to four glasses. Pour 1 cup tea in each. Add a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint to each glass.

Serves four.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.