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Got fresh mint? Work them into these six recipes

Hoisin-mint marinade transforms fast-cooking pork tenderloin. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Published Jul. 22

At this point in the summer, my cooking needs refreshing. Good thing the mint bursts its boundaries in the herb garden.

There's a reason most of us enjoy mint in our toothpaste and chewing gum. It cleans the palate in a way no other ingredient can.

There are many varieties of mint — smooth-leaved, crinkly, variegated, fuzzy, shiny. The square stems identify the plants as members of the mint family. Peppermint and spearmint are my favorites for all-purpose kitchen companions. We plant them as borders around the garden and in pots on the deck for easy harvesting. The plants thrive in sun and shade, and they aren't fussy about soil quality or frequent watering. Starter plants are inexpensive. Even this deep into summer, it's not too late to get them in the ground; you'll have mint sprigs well into the fall.

For those without herb gardens, farmers markets, produce stands and ethnic groceries sell bundles on the cheap. Supermarkets offer little packets that last well in the fridge.

I harvest mint sprigs with scissors and then rinse them well under cool running water. Shake off the water and spread the sprigs on a clean towel to dry. Put the dry sprigs into a zippered plastic bag with a damp square of paper toweling. Close the bag and refrigerate for up a week.

I stock pitchers of water, laced with several sprigs of mint, for a cold refresher I drink all day long. I tuck tiny mint leaves into green salads and fruit bowls for a surprise between bites. Chopped mint in sour cream or plain yogurt makes a delicious dip for cut veggies. Freeze it into ice cubes to spike mojitos and gin-and-tonics with a double dose of mint.

Chopped and added to soft butter, the spread refreshes morning toast or pancakes and dinner's steamed vegetables and grilled fish. Baked sweet potatoes topped with a sesame mint butter prove so delicious they are often all we have for dinner after a summer's walk.

When the garden yields an abundance of mint, I make a variety of condiments to have on hand to perk up my cooking all week long. The hoisin-mint marinade recipe that follows transforms fast-cooking pork tenderloin and chicken pieces. Leftover marinade can enliven grain salads and sandwiches.

If you make no other homemade salad dressing this summer, try the avocado mint version included here. Refreshing, creamy and tangy, the mixture tastes great on hearty green salads — even kale — as well as tomato slices and watermelon chunks or as a veggie dip. I dollop it on grilled fish and sliced eggplant. Try it instead of mayonnaise for a fantastic chicken or egg salad.

If nothing else, add it to a pitcher of sun tea. Then sit on the deck and thank your lucky stars for such a refreshing way to cool off.

HOISIN-MINT MARINADE AND SAUCE

½ cup hoisin sauce

¼ cup unsweetened rice vinegar

¼ cup tamari soy sauce

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger

4 to 6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves, about 6 large sprigs

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Refrigerate covered for up to 1 week.

Makes about 1 cup.

Source: JeanMarie Brownson, Chicago Tribune

GRILLED BUTTERFLIED PORK TENDERLOIN WITH HOISIN-MINT SAUCE

If you chose not to butterfly the pork tenderloin, simply marinate it whole in the refrigerator for several hours. Grill the whole tenderloin on the cool side of the grill for 15 to 20 minutes; the internal temperature should be about 145 degrees.

½ cup Hoisin-Mint Marinade (see recipe)

1 ½ pounds pork tenderloin (or boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts OR 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs)

1 very large white onion, peeled, cut into 4 to 5 thick slices

Thinly sliced fresh mint leaves

Cooked jasmine rice

Divide the hoisin-mint mixture in half; set aside half of the mixture to use later as a sauce.

Trim and butterfly the pork tenderloin as follows: Use a sharp knife to remove all of the silver skin from the outside of the tenderloin. Then cut the tenderloin lengthwise down the middle, making an incision about 1 inch deep. Open the cut like a book. Make a lengthwise incision about ½ inch deep on either side of the first cut. Again, open the tenderloin like a book or unfolding a letter. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the meat; use a meat mallet to pound the tenderloin into a uniform ¾-inch thickness.

Put the pork tenderloin on a baking sheet; spread ¼ cup hoisin-mint marinade over both sides of the meat. Let stand at room temperature, about 30 minutes, or refrigerate loosely covered up to several hours.

Prepare a charcoal grill; let coals burn until covered in gray ash. Or heat a gas grill to medium hot. Heat the grill grate.

Put pork and onion slices on grill directly over the heat source; cover grill and cook, 7 minutes. Flip meat and onions. Grill covered until pork is nearly firm when pressed and onions are crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Remove to a cutting board to rest for 5 minutes before slicing thinly.

Drizzle meat with the reserved ¼ cup hoisin-mint sauce. Sprinkle with sliced mint leaves. Serve with grilled onions and jasmine rice.

Note: Boneless chicken thighs will cook in about the same time as the butterflied pork tenderloin. Depending on their size, boneless, skinless chicken breasts take 15 to 20 minutes to cook. Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or chicken breasts will take 20 to 25 minutes.

Serves 4.

Source: JeanMarie Brownson, Chicago Tribune

GRILLED MINTY CHICKEN SALAD

I plan ahead and make grilled chicken with the hoisin-mint marinade just so I have leftovers for this salad; you'll need about 3 chicken thighs or 2 small chicken breasts. The hoisin-mint pork tastes great here too; so does rotisserie chicken from the supermarket.

6 cups (total 8 ounces) hearty salad greens such as shredded kale, shredded Brussels sprouts, torn radicchio, shredded green and red cabbages

½ red or orange bell pepper, seeded, chopped

½ cup dried cranberries or raisins

¼ cup roasted, salted sunflower seeds, pepitas, chopped almonds or pecans

2 to 3 tablespoons each, thinly sliced: mint leaves, cilantro leaves, chives

1 ½ to 2 cups diced boneless, skinless hoisin-mint grilled chicken (or pork) or rotisserie chicken

⅓ to ½ cup Creamy Avocado-Mint Dressing, see recipe

1 small avocado, halved, pitted, diced

Mix salad greens, bell pepper, cranberries, sunflower seeds and herbs in a large bowl. Put chicken on a plate; cover loosely with wax paper. Microwave on high just long enough to warm the chicken, 45 to 60 seconds.

Drizzle dressing over salad mixture. Toss to coat. Add chicken and avocado. Toss again and serve.

Makes 2 main-course salads.

Source: JeanMarie Brownson, Chicago Tribune

CREAMY AVOCADO-MINT DRESSING

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 small ripe avocado, halved, pitted

½ cup loosely packed small mint leaves

Put oil, mayo, vinegar, salt and pepper into a blender. Process until smooth. Add 2 tablespoons water and the avocado flesh. Puree until smooth. Add mint leaves. Pulse to finely chop the mint. Refrigerate in a covered container and use within a couple of days.

Makes about 1 cup.

Source: JeanMarie Brownson, Chicago Tribune

BAKED SWEET POTATOES WITH MINT-SESAME BUTTER

4 medium sweet potatoes, about 3 pounds total, scrubbed

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, or organic coconut oil

3 tablespoons each, chopped: fresh mint, chives

2 teaspoons dark sesame oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

½ teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place sweet potatoes on a baking sheet. Pierce tops in several places with the tip of a sharp knife. Bake until potatoes are tender when a knife is inserted in center, 50 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, put butter in a small bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients.

Let potatoes cool on the baking sheet, about 5 minutes. Use a knife to cut a large X in tops of potatoes. Use your fingers to squeeze the potato open at the X. Spoon a quarter of the butter into each potato. Serve hot.

Serves 3 to 4.

Source: JeanMarie Brownson, Chicago Tribune

MINTY SUN TEA

4 large sprigs fresh mint, rinsed

4 family-size iced tea bags or 8 to 12 regular-size black or orange-pekoe tea bags

2 to 4 tablespoons superfine sugar, optional

Sliced cucumber and lime, if desired

Put mint sprigs into a clear 2-quart pitcher. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to lightly crush the mint. (This releases flavor and aroma.) Fill the pitcher with 2 quarts cool water. Add the tea bags.

Set the pitcher in full sun for 6 to 8 hours. Remove the tea bags; leave the mint. Stir in sugar to sweeten to taste, if desired. Refrigerate to chill. Tea will keep several days.

To serve, pour over ice in tall glasses. Garnish with cucumber and lime slices.

Makes 2 quarts.

Source: JeanMarie Brownson, Chicago Tribune

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