Off the Beaten Aisle: Mint

By: J.M. Hirsch
Related To:
feta mint penne pasta

It’s time to move mint beyond juleps and mojitos.

Because in the U.S., mint has struggled to land on the dinner table. We tend to associate it with sweets (after all, it does pair nicely with chocolate) and breath mints.

But elsewhere in the world, especially North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mint is used to lend a crisp, almost peppery contrast to savory dishes, especially fatty ones (think lamb with mint sauce).

First, the basics.

You’ll find mint sold with the other herbs in the produce section, often in large bunches that you’ll never manage to entirely use. No worries -- it’s cheap.

Most of the mint sold in American grocery stores is spearmint or peppermint, just two of the many varieties (that grow like weeds) available. It should have a mix of large and small leaves that are bright green and firm.

When you get the mint home, give it a good wash in cold water, then snip off the bottoms of the stems. You can prolong its life -- sometimes by weeks -- if you stand the stems upright in a glass of water and refrigerate.

And be prepared for a minty-fresh refrigerator. Mint is as aromatic as it is flavorful (handy since we tend to taste with our snouts as much as our tongues). But that also means you’ll want to go easy with it to avoid overpowering other flavors in your dish.

Mint loves vegetables, cooked and raw (it’s key to the flavor of Vietnamese spring rolls, for example). It also goes well with roasted poultry and pork, and helps cut through assertive cheeses, such as feta.

And here’s a fun fact: Supposedly adding a fresh mint leaf to milk will prevent it from curdling. And for that same reason, the milk from cows that have grazed on mint can’t be used to make cheese. Or so I’m told.

So once you’ve dragged your cows out of the mint patch, here’s what to do with this seriously fragrant herb.

  • Toss steamed peas with chopped mint and crumbled feta cheese, then toss with hot pasta, salt and pepper.
  • Sauté ground lamb and a diced onion, then toss with chopped mint and a splash of white wine. Serve over mashed potatoes.
  • Substitute mint for some of the parsley in a chimichurri sauce, then serve over grilled flank steak.
  • Mix finely minced mint (say that five times fast!) with plain yogurt and a bit of lemon zest for a delicious complement to roasted lamb.
  • Add a few sprigs of mint to the water when steaming or boiling vegetables. Toss the vegetables with nothing but melted butter, salt and pepper.
  • Add a bit finely chopped mint to a fruit salad. Also try this with a tomato salad; mint and tomato pair nicely, especially with a bit of lemon juice.
  • Slather brie on a baguette, top with honey and mint, then toast.
Feta-Mint Penne With Tomatoes and Capers
Start to finish: 15 minutes
Servings: 4
1 pound penne pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon capers, drained
½ cup crumbled feta
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 4 minutes.

Add the tomatoes to the skillet and cook until just softened, about 2 minutes. Add the capers and cook for another minute.

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the feta and mint. Season with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon the sauce over the pasta.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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