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Originally published Friday, April 8, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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Mint adds a refreshing kick to foods and drinks

Seasonings: Tips on using mint. Recipe: Ina Garten's Middle Eastern Vegetable Salad

Scripps Howard News Service

Mint is my hero because it ended my killing spree. You see, ever since I was a child, I was known for a really bad black thumb — I could not grow anything, and even worse, plants seemed to die under my supervision, even the plastic kind.

Then one day, I noticed mint in a friend's yard and decided to try growing some. I succeeded!

I love this absolutely magnificent herb for its fresh flavor, and that lingering aroma reminds me of all things delicious.

Chef Barton Seaver, author of "For Cod and Country," agrees, adding in the interview that he loves mint because, much like lemon juice and salt, mint accentuates the natural flavors of a dish. I loved the words he used about mint's aroma: "it provides a sense of levity to foods."

On to buying this herb — if you don't grow it, you should. If you do buy it, buy it by the bunch and avoid the herbs that come in plastic boxes. Use it as needed and store it in the fridge, wrapped in a moist paper towel.

And yes, all you mojito fans, I asked A.J. Rathbun, author of "Dark Spirits: 200 Classy Concoctions Starring Bourbon, Brandy, Scotch, Whiskey, Rum and More," for his secrets on using mint in drinks. He said in an interview:

"I think to maximize the minty-ness, you must get the essential oils in the leaves flowing — those precious oils are what bring the aroma and the taste out to play. With this in mind, muddling the mint up (bruising it while rubbing it around the inside of a glass) is the way to go. Another option is to hold a leaf flat in your hand and then give it a smack with the other hand, sort of like you're clapping with the mint in the middle. This is a good way to cause the fragrance to burst out, which is especially helpful when using a single beautiful leaf as a garnish, because you want it to still look nice."

There are many different kinds of mint out there, but I often find myself turning to the classic mint leaves. Barton had a similar reaction, noting that while many varieties offer interesting characteristics, they also exhibit a lot of flaws in the balance of flavors. For instance, apple mint is highly fragrant but often very bitter on the palate. It also has a fuzzy texture that is a little off-putting. Rathbun also loves classic mint flavors, adding that he tends to use peppermint because he finds the taste a little brighter on the tongue than spearmint, but both can be fun.

Mint is amazingly versatile.

"Try using mint with mushrooms next time you cook them. In Italy, you can't buy mushrooms without being handed a few sprigs of nepitella, which is a wild field mint that is a cross between mint and oregano in flavor," Barton says.

He suggests throwing some chopped mint into a batch of roasted vegetables straight from the oven: Put the vegetables into a bowl and toss with mint, chopped parsley and shallot.

INA GARTEN'S MIDDLE EASTERN VEGETABLE SALAD

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Serves: 4 to 6

Adapted from Ina Garten's "Barefoot Contessa How Easy is That?" (Clarkson Potter 2010)

10 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced

1 pound ripe tomatoes, seeded, cored, ½-inch dice

1 hothouse cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded, ½-inch dice

1 can or jar (12 to 16 ounces) chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves

1/3 cup julienned fresh basil leaves

½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (4 lemons)

1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup olive oil

8 ounces feta cheese, ½-inch dice

Toasted pita bread, for serving

Place the scallions, tomatoes, cucumber, chickpeas, parsley, mint and basil in a large salad bowl and toss to combine.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to make an emulsion. Pour the dressing over the salad, tossing gently to coat all the vegetables. Add the feta, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss gently. Serve the salad with the toasted pita bread.

Monica Bhide: monica@monicabhide.com

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