Mint Perfect!

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There’s no easier way to conjure up a burst of summer than with a handful of zingy, fresh mint.

RECIPES AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS

Mint. It grows like a weed around these parts and we might sometimes take its ubiquity for granted. Yet there is no easier way to conjure up a burst of summer sunshine than by throwing a handful of zingy, fresh mint into a dish. Originally a native of the Mediterranean, mint’s refreshing sweetness pairs perfectly with all manner of fruits and vegetables, works well in both sweet and savory dishes, and, nowadays, features in delicacies from all over the world — from British roast lamb and mint sauce, through Middle Eastern tabbouleh, to Thai larb and the all-American mint julep. I wove a number of these global influences together to create an easy, mint-forward, vegetarian menu that makes for a refreshing family supper, can be scaled up for a dinner party or potluck, and will help us all celebrate the fact that summer is just around the corner.

PEA, MINT, AND ZUCCHINI SALAD

If you’re British like me, freshly-shelled garden peas and mint go together like bacon and eggs. I married this classic combination with traditional Greek flavors to create an unusual early-summer salad. The use of thinly-shaved ribbons of raw zucchini is an Italian technique that gives this dish a welcome crunch. Although it’s the perfect way to use fresh English peas, don’t despair if you can’t get a hold of those elusive creatures: a bag of frozen peas will work just as well.

Serves: 4 as a starter or 2 as a main | Active time: 15 minutes + at least 1 hour marinating time

For the marinated peas

5 leafy sprigs of mint (about 50 leaves)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 cups freshly-shelled English peas (or a 10- ounce bag frozen peas)

For the salad

4 small zucchini
4 small scallions
4 sprigs dill
1 6-ounce block feta cheese

Recipe

To make the marinade, strip the mint leaves from their sprigs. Set aside a few small whole leaves to garnish, then roughly chop the rest. Place the olive oil, lemon juice, sugar, and mint in a bowl and stir to combine.

Blanch the peas in salted boiling water until just soft but retaining a bite. This will be 2–3 minutes for fresh peas and less than 1 minute for frozen. Drain, and then immediately stir the hot peas into the marinade. Set aside to cool.

When the peas and marinade reach room temperature, place them in the fridge for at least an hour, or overnight.

Just before you’re ready to serve, slice the zucchini lengthwise into thin ribbons using a mandoline or potato peeler. Slice the scallions and strip the leaves from the dill.

Mix the zucchini, scallions, and dill together in a bowl, and stir them through the marinated peas, with all their oily juices. Crumble the feta and sprinkle it over the salad. Garnish with the reserved whole mint leaves.

SPAGHETTI WITH EGGPLANT, TOMATOES, AND A PISTACHIO MINT PESTO

If you ever travel to Sicily in the summer months, you’re bound to find Pasta alla Norma on the menu — a pasta dish featuring sautéed eggplant in a rich tomato sauce. I used this dish as my starting point, but used fresh cherry tomatoes to counteract the oily richness of the eggplant, and then swirled in a bright pistachio, mint, and lemon pesto. Because Sicily is famous for both its pistachios and its lemons, this seemed entirely appropriate. If you can find ricotta salata, use that as your garnish, but if not, pecorino or Parmesan cheese will be more than fine.

Serves: 4–6 | Active time: 30 minutes

For the pistachio mint pesto

About 10 leafy sprigs of mint (the 3/4- ounce packs of herbs from the supermarket are perfect)
2 ounces shelled pistachios
1 small clove garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
Juice of half a lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil

For the pasta and sauce

1 medium eggplant
2 cups cherry tomatoes
1 garlic clove, peeled
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
10 ounces spaghetti
2 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled (or freshly grated Parmesan)

Recipe

First make the pesto. Strip the leaves from the mint sprigs, reserving a few for garnish. Place the mint, pistachios, garlic, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil in a food processor and process to a paste. Set aside.

Slice the eggplant into 1/4-inch rounds. Halve the cherry tomatoes. Halve the garlic clove lengthwise.

Put a large saucepan of salted water on to boil for the spaghetti.

Brush each side of the eggplant rounds with olive oil, place on a sheet pan, and broil them on a high heat for 3–5 minutes on each side until golden brown and soft. You could also use an outside grill or, as I did, cook them in batches on a panini press, which will cook them in about 3 minutes.

When cooked, drain the eggplant rounds on paper towels and cut into half moons.

Start cooking the spaghetti according to package directions.

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet until hot but not smoking and sauté the halved garlic cloves until golden. Remove garlic from the pan. The oil should be smoking by now, so add the halved cherry tomatoes to the hot garlicky oil — they will sizzle, so stand back — and stir until coated with oil. Turn down the heat to medium and cook the tomatoes until very soft and partially disintegrated, 7–8 minutes. When they are ready, stir in the eggplant and two tablespoons of pasta cooking water. Set aside. Also, stir two tablespoons of the hot cooking water into the pesto.

When the spaghetti is cooked and drained, stir it into the sautéed tomatoes and eggplant, keeping the skillet over a low heat. Stir in the pesto and serve piping hot, garnished with the crumbled ricotta salata and reserved fresh mint leaves.

BLUEBERRY MINT SWIRL POPSICLES

Summer isn’t summer without popsicles, and I thought it would be fun to riff off the classic mojito combination of mint, lime, and brown sugar. Coconut milk is rather more kid-friendly than rum, and it marries beautifully with the somewhat Asian flavors. The sparkle of mint and lime adds a welcome tart undertone to the sweetness of blueberries, but feel free to substitute any other summer berries, chopped first into blueberry-sized pieces.

Makes 10, 2 1/2-ounce popsicles | Active time: 15 minutes + chilling and freezing time

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups coconut milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 leafy sprigs of mint (about 40 leaves)
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Juice of 1 lime

Recipe

Place the coconut milk, granulated sugar, and stripped mint leaves into a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Immediately remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Place the blueberries, brown sugar, and lime juice in another saucepan and cook over a medium heat for 3–5 minutes until the sugar has dissolved and the berries have released syrupy juices but are mostly intact. Immediately remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

When both coconut milk and blueberry compote have returned to room temperature, place them in the fridge until they’re thoroughly chilled.

Strain the coconut milk to remove the mint leaves. Using a spoon, fill your popsicle molds with the coconut milk about a third of the way and place them in the freezer for 15–20 minutes until they start to freeze (this will stop the blueberry compote from sinking to the bottom). Fill the next third with blueberry compote and top up with more coconut milk, leaving approximately 1/2 inch of room at the top for expansion. Using a popsicle stick or skewer, gently swirl the blueberry compote through each popsicle. Clean up any spills or drips on top of the molds to make removal as easy as possible.

Freeze the popsicles for approximately 45 minutes (set a timer for this so you don’t forget) and then insert the sticks — partially freezing first stops the sticks from sinking. Freeze for 4–5 hours until solid.

Running the molds first under hot water will help the popsicles slide out easily. Store them in a big plastic bag in the freezer.

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