Cool. The flavoring we often encounter as a concentrated extract or oil starts as a lovely, leafy plant that you can use in a plethora of ways in the kitchen.
Fresh mint is abundant during the summer. You can grow it yourself in a pot or a plot, buy it at the supermarket or farmers market or accept a bunch from a gardener friend who's inevitably eager to give it away. Mint, though a beautiful, hardy perennial, will take over a flower bed if you let it. Once established, the problem is containing it.
Mint comes in a variety of fragrances and flavors; peppermint and spearmint are the most common of more than 30 species.
You don't have to be a gourmet cook to use mint. In fact, you don't have to cook at all. You can plop fresh mint in iced tea, chew a sprig as a breath freshener, brew a refreshing mint tea, display it as a garnish or use it as a long-lasting filler in flower arrangements (rub the leaves occasionally to perfume the room).
HOW TO BUY AND STORE IT: Choose mint that is bright green and robust looking. Store it in the refrigerator with the cut ends in a glass of water and the tops lightly covered with a plastic bag.
To freeze mint, wash and mince leaves and place one or two tablespoons in each compartment of an ice cube tray. Add enough water to cover. When cubes have formed, remove them from the tray and store them in a labeled plastic freezer bag.
To dry mint, wash, dry and hang a bunch upside down in a warm room. Crumble the mint when it has thoroughly dried. Keep dried mint in a tightly closed container away from heat and light. Smell and taste it before using to make sure it hasn't gotten old and dull.
HOW TO USE IT: To incorporate mint into your mealtime:
Add it chopped to plain cooked rice. Mint is great for anyone striving for a healthful diet because it provides flavor without adding fat or salt.
Add mint to a meat or shrimp marinade.
Make a mixed herb pesto with mint, basil and parsley.
Boil up a mint vinegar with cider vinegar, mint leaves and sugar.
Make a dessert mint sauce in the food processor by combining lemon juice, mint and sugar. Toss lightly with fruit for a simple summer treat.
Serve boiled carrots with butter and fresh chopped mint and parsley.
Looking for a major domestic project? Make a year's supply of mint jelly, which actually is mint-flavored apple jelly; mint chutney; or mint relish.
Mint's repute travels over vast continents. It's found in a cucumber and sour cream mold in Israel, cold spinach soup in Iran, stuffed green peppers in Turkey, bulgur salad and Swiss chard dolma in Lebanon, meatballs in Armenia and green tea in Morocco.
Mint serves as a counterbalance to spicy Indian food. It appears in the yogurt salad called raita. (A refreshing raita for summer contains mint, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers.) And the chilled, frothy Indian yogurt drink lassi also may contain mint.