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updated: 8/3/2011 2:48 PM

The savory side of mint

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  • Mint is not limited to just candies, iced tea and mojitos.

      Mint is not limited to just candies, iced tea and mojitos.
    photos.com

  • Mint growing in herb garden

      Mint growing in herb garden
    photos.com

 
 

I'm a bit of a mint freak.

The gum in my purse is spearmint flavored. I favor the white and green Tic Tacs over the orange ones. Peppermint candy canes adorn my Christmas tree. My favorite ice cream: mint chocolate chip. And I can't leave Macy's without a slice of Frango Mint Pie.

Like most people, I think of mint in terms of sweet things; mint that flavors candies, iced tea and mojitos.

But this prolific herb also has a savory side.

Elsewhere in the world, cooks use mint as a key ingredient in appetizers and entrees.

In Thailand, whole mint leaves add a pleasantly bracing flavor to spring rolls. In Vietnam, they are folded into meaty lettuce wraps. In Italy, mint is stirred into a pasta sauce and pureed for a variation on pesto. And in India and Pakistan, the herb spikes a spicy chutney that is as ubiquitous on restaurant tables as ketchup is in American diners.

Mint's sweet-peppery freshness and deliciously pungent aroma cuts through heavy and fatty foods, such as roasted meats. That's why you often see mint paired with roasted lamb.

Like any good weed, mint adapts well to its environment. Mints are, after all, highly invasive plants, which is why some gardeners contain them in planters or heavily prune in-ground plants.

Mint can be found growing around the globe, from dry, rocky ridges in the Mediterranean to gardens in Vietnam. The fresh leaf offered most often at American grocers is spearmint.

"Most people use it not only for its flavor, but for its health reasons," says Boston chef Ana Sortun, whose cookbook "Spice" dedicates an entire chapter to savory dishes featuring mint. "It's a digestive and an antioxidant."

In savory dishes at her restaurant, Oleana, Sortun uses mint the classic Turkish way, which is combined with dill and parsley. "Mint as a fresh herb is best combined with other herbs," she says. "It creates a warm flavor."

Try cutting it into ribbons to freshen salad recipes. Stir a few chopped teaspoons at the last minute into cooked peas. Add it to a marinade for grilled beef, lamb or trout. Or use it to bring depth to a classic tomato sauce or a tzatziki-like yogurt sauce flavored with fresh mint, lemon juice, garlic and shallot.

• Associated Press contributed to this report.

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