Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Home Grown Herbs: Mint

Home Grown Mint (Mentha spicata)

Mint is perhaps the easiest of herbs to grow at home - and the benefits of having this brightly aromatic herb fresh are endless ... delicious in salads, teas, curries, wraps, and of course as garnishes .... desserts, fruit salads and fancy beverages would not be complete without a little sprig :D. Although there are different kinds of mints used in the kitchen, spearmint (Mentha spicata) is the most popular. Peppermint is used predominantly for teas and flavorings and spearmint for tea as well as all other cooking needs. Mint is an enormously useful herb beyond the kitchen too: it is used in medicines, perfumes, soaps, oral hygiene products, insect repellents, etc, etc.

I find that stem cuttings are the best and quickest way to grow mint. It grows quite easily from cuttings - child's play :>! I grew mine years ago from the leftover stems after using the leaves for cooking. Since it is a perennial herb, once planted mint will keep growing as long it gets watered regularly. It can be invasive and take over other plantings unless grown in a contained area or in a pot. It is perfect to grow in a pot in a cool spot with a tiny bit of sunshine, but not too much. Don't be afraid to pinch or snip the herb often; regular pruning keeps it growing and attractive. Any extra may be dried for when the herb is not growing actively.

How to grow: Strip off the lower leaves; the stems may be rooted in a jar of water or planted directly in moist planting medium or soil. For rooting in water, place the stems in a jar of water and keep in a cool place; they will root readily and quickly. When roots are about half to one inch long, plant them in a pot or in the ground and keep them moist but not soggy. When the top of the soil dries out, water the plants.

How to dry: My method is very quick and easy. Rinse the herb sprigs in a few changes of fresh water and drain well. Spread on towel-lined baking sheets and allow to dry in a cool dry place until they are completely moisture free and brittle. Crush lightly to separate the stems from the leaves - remove stems and discard them. Store in clean jars with tight lids.

Mint is used in many cuisines around the world where it is not just a pretty garnish. It is the main ingredient in emerald green mint chutney (an Indian meal would not be complete without it!) and middle eastern Tabbouleh. Mint was cultivated and used quite extensively in ancient Rome (see Cato's Lentils). Mint is an essential ingredient in many cuisines such as Asian, Greek, Turkish and also other regions around the Mediterranean. Next time you make Caprese salad, Raita, salad, or a bruschetta, try using mint in place of fresh basil or other herbs - and you will be in for a pleasant surprise - yum!

Here are a few recipes to try: Bruschetta, Tea, Stuffed Veggies, Spring Rolls, and Lentil Salad. Enjoy!!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cato's Lentils (Ancient Roman Lentil Stew)

Cato's Lentil Stew proves that the ancient people knew how to prepare and enjoy their food! Although it is simple, it is nonetheless quite delicious. I know this is one dish that I will make again and again. It is adapted from The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger.

I tweaked the recipe just a little - left out the rue as it is a plant that causes mild to severe contact dermatitis and didn't want to find out what it would do to my insides when ingested ... since my other motto (besides "waste not") is ... When in doubt, leave it out .... Although rue was a common pot herb in antiquity, it lost favor and faded out of the realm of culinary art. "Garum" or fish sauce also got axed - no creature extracts in my food please :D! And, although I like sweets just as much as the next person, I am not a fan of sweetened stews and veggies; so the honey and concentrated grape juice called "defrutum" were also left out. If you like your stews on the sweet side, you are of course welcome to add them (about a couple of teaspoons each).

Fresh mint and cilantro combine beautifully to cook up a mild but lusciously flavored stew. If you add more water to this dish, it can be served as a wonderful soup. Serve this superb stew/soup with simply prepared whole grains, a veggie dish and/or a salad for a filling and nutritious meal.  This dish works well with Indian meals too: with chapatis, rice, etc.

4 Servings

Ingredients:

1 cup brown/green Lentils
1 small Leek or white Onion, finely chopped
1 pinch Asafetida
1 Pinch Turmeric
1 Tsp Coriander Seeds
1/2 Tsp Whole Black Peppercorns
Sea Salt to taste
2 sprigs fresh Mint, chopped
1 handful fresh Coriander (Cilantro), chopped
2 Tsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tsp White Wine Vinegar or fresh lime juice

Method:

Wash the lentils well and drain.

Bring about 3 cups of water to a boil; stir in the lentils, leek, turmeric and cook until lentils are soft.

While the lentils are simmering, toast the coriander seeds and the peppercorns lightly, cool, and grind into a powder with a couple of pinches of salt using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. For best results, use an electric spice grinder as coriander seeds are a bit tough to grind.

Add the asafetida, coriander-pepper mixture, mint and half the cilantro and gently simmer for about 10 more minutes. Mash the lentils with the back of the spoon until creamy.

Stir in more salt and freshly ground black pepper if needed.

Remove from heat and allow to rest for about 10 minutes.

Stir in the rest of the cilantro along with the vinegar or lime juice.

Spoon the lentils into a warmed serving dish and drizzle the olive oil on top. Serve hot. Enjoy!!