This week's look at what's new, mysterious or bountiful in the produce aisles:
A bulldozer plowed under my backyard last year, demolishing my patch of mint, the patch that had sprung up from under the fish pond that we had built on top of it. Undeterred by the pile of stones, the pounds of sand and the pre-formed pond filled with water, frogs, snails and koi, the mint had spread up the sides of the pond and onto the stone path around it. Friends from New York City took back huge bunches for mojitos and told me they would have paid $25 for the equivalent at their greengrocer's.
I miss that mint. Until my next patch gets established, I'm forced to buy and scavenge. Obviously, the stuff is hardy, so if you can grow it, do so. But it might be nice to keep it in a contained area or in a big pot, or it will run wild all over the yard if you turn your back on it.
HOW TO BUY: Mint comes in a variety of fragrances and flavors, from lemon to chocolate. But I prefer the common spearmint and peppermint found in most markets, with the former being milder than the latter. How to tell the difference? Spearmint leaves are bright green leaves with pointy tips and a rough texture; the leaves come right out of the stem. Peppermint leaves can have a purple cast, are smoother and have small, frail stems off of the main stem.
HOW TO STORE: Place the stems in a glass of water, cover loosely with a plastic bag and refrigerate. Wash the leaves when you're ready to use them.
HOW TO USE: Mint is a natural with fruit; mince the leaves and sprinkle them over a bowl of berries. It's also perfect in a summer side dish of tabbouleh -- that mix of bulgur wheat, tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, olive oil and lemon juice.
Mint can change the way you think about pesto if you add it to basil, parsley, and pine nuts or walnuts and process the mixture to a paste with some olive oil. It pairs nicely with lemon in a rice dish served with grilled lamb chops and cools off fiery chili peppers in a marinade for shrimp.
Drinks, anyone? Make mint juleps with bourbon and crushed ice if you dare, or just use the julep technique of muddling mint with sugar and pour it in your favorite rum with lots of ice. (To muddle: Mash or crush some mint leaves and sugar with a spoon in the bottom of a sturdy glass or bowl.) Or take a big bunch and make mojitos for the crowd, with sprigs of mint, rum, lime juice, sugar and a splash of club soda.
Israeli Couscous With Lemon and Mint
This recipe originally called for green peas mixed with the Israeli couscous, but as spring approached summer I threw out the peas, added some lemon zest and made this a side dish for grilled salmon or lamb chops.
Adapted from the April 2004 issue of Food & Wine Magazine:
11/2 (8 ounces) cups Israeli couscous*
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon very finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon lemon zest, finely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the couscous and cook until al dente, about 4 minutes. Drain the couscous, reserving 11/2 cups of the cooking liquid.
Wipe out the saucepan, place over medium heat and heat 2 tablespoons of butter until it melts. Add the garlic and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the couscous, remaining 2 tablespoons butter and 1 cup couscous cooking liquid and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the couscous is tender and coated in a creamy sauce, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the mint and lemon zest and season with salt and pepper to taste. (If the couscous seems dry, stir in some of the remaining cooking liquid.) Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.
*NOTE: Israeli couscous is pasta about the size of a grain of barley that has been toasted until dry. It is available at Middle Eastern markets, some supermarkets and specialty stores. (See the related item on Page 3).
Per serving: 347 calories, 9 gm protein, 49 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 33 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 115 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
-- Jeanne McManus