Friday, July 19, 2013

Miraculous Mint: Always in Style


It is hard to believe that, not so long ago, just about every recipe called for dried herbs. It was unheard of to see fresh versions of even the most commonly used herbs—basil, oregano, sage, thyme—in the stores. “Exotics” like tarragon were unheard of period until the late 70s or, in many locales, the 80s.
But mint, fresh and fragrant, was somehow always there.  In the lemonade and the iced tea. Fresh.

I am guessing that this rare example of herbal freshness is because mint was practically a weed: it was just there. It grew everywhere, and “took over”:  most people pretty much considered it a pest, and would dig it out save for a tiny bit for, you know, the lemonade.  I could not understand this. I loved its looks, its feel between the fingers, its scent of course, the amazing fact that you could just pick and chew on the leaves, and they were minty great. I loved the way it took over.

In a paradoxical reversal, mint is actually now hard to find. Yup, it’s been dug up.  If you do see it in the store—rarely—it is a sad flattened little bunch stifled and browning in a plastic tray. Why is it that we can now have big bunches of cilantro, basil, Italian parsley, and bushy gatherings of rosemary on a regular basis, but not mint?  I am guessing that it is something that doesn’t really take to greenhouse cultivation. It wants to be wild—run rampant. Most farming doesn't work like that these days.

So if you want it, you need to have your own taking over the backyard, or live by a local farmer.  Sometimes you see it in international markets. But I know you know what I mean when I say that making tabbouleh or anything else that calls for a good load of mint can be a challenge.

Coll grows it, and is generous with it, as he is with his other bunches of herbs (many herb prices in stores are, in a word, ridiculous). The beetles have, apparently, been at it these past days, so when I arrived at the stand there was none out for sale. I really wanted some, so one of the farm stand girls kindly went out and cut me some, picking through and harvesting the best un-eaten stems. I got enough, and paid a dollar for it.

Thinking about the ahead-of-its time abundance and present-time scarcity of mint quite naturally brought on a little food nostalgia.  This salad is a reminder of the virtues of an untidy summer lawn, shot through with marauding mint. Was there ever a more effortless and neglected gift to the suburban table?

Jellied Mint, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad

The mint “jello” is superb: try it. It would also make, on its own, a wonderful palate cleanser between courses or a light summer dessert with some ripe berries and cream. Serves 3-4.

The jelly

1 big bunch of freshly picked mint, enough to for 1 cup loosely packed chopped mint; reserve some nice leaves for garnish
2 packages plain gelatin (and a little cold water to soften it)
2 cups boiling water
2 T sugar
1 tea freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ tea salt
¼ cup mild vinegar (cider, white, or white wine)
¼ cup white wine (or use a ½ cup vinegar)

In a 1-qt saucepan, put the gelatin and add just enough cold water to soften it; let it sit about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, stem the mint, stack the leaves, and roughly slice/chop it. You will need about 1 cup, loosely packed.

Add the boiling water, sugar, maple syrup, salt, lemon juice, vinegar, and wine (if using) to the pan; keep it warm over medium-low heat. Add the fresh mint, stir, and let it sit on the heat for 20 minutes or so, stirring and tasting it occasionally. Add a little more sugar if needed. It will taste a little acid at the beginning, but will mellow as it steeps.

Strain the mixture into a big measuring cup and discard the leaves. Rinse a 9” or 10” pie plate with cold water.  Pour the liquid into the pie plate and refrigerate until set.

Dressing

Use any sweetish dressing you like. I used:

1 T finely minced sweet onion
¼ c olive oil (would have used vegetable oil, but had none)
2 T cider vinegar
¼ tea salt
1/8 tea black pepper
1 ½ T thick local heavy cream

Whisk all together until thick.

To assemble the salad

The mint jello
1 medium nice local tomato
1 medium cucumber
The dressing
Mint leaves

Core and seed the tomato and the cucumber and chop them into large dice. Turn the jelly out onto a board and dice it; if you have trouble turning it out, cut the jelly into squares with a sharp knife in the pan, and remove them with a spoon. Arrange the jello and vegetables on a plate. Nap with a little whipped cream dressing and garnish with mint before serving; if you can, set the salad in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to chill.

2 comments:

Sharon Gorbacz said...

That sounds very interesting. I'm thinking of doing the mint jelly with watermelon, as I have heard that combo works well.

Jane said...

Sounds great to me; let me know how it turns out!