Branching out with the many flavors of mint

For such a likable, versatile, easily identifiable herb, mint is usually relegated to the edge of an ice-filled glass of tea. Or turned into an oversweet, cloying glob of green, store-bought jelly that ends up sliding down the side of a plate onto a slice of overcooked lamb. But this wonderful herb lends interest and flavor to sauces, drinks, salad dressings, and entrees.

As any gardener knows, growing mint is no problem -- keeping mint from taking over the neighborhood is.

Planting it in containers or keeping it corralled with sunken bricks or boards helps. Mint is an undemanding herb that grows happily in sun or partial shade and comes in a variety of interesting flavors.

Spearmint (Mentha spicatais) is strongest in flavor, peppermint (M. piperita) is next. Subtle fruit flavors are also popular -- apple, orange, and my own personal favorite, pineapple mint.

These perennial mints grow from 1 1/2 to 3 feet tall. All should be pinched back to keep them bushy and keep them from flowering.

Less seen is Corsican mint (M. requienii), a mosslike variety that grows only 1 inch high.

If you can't get a handout from a neighborhood gardener, bunches of mint are available in many supermarkets this time of year, and they are not too expensive.

Try chopping mint into coleslaw or potato salad for a change. And although we tend to think of mint and lamb as the perfect marriage, mint brings an interesting and unexpected flavor to chicken, too. Minted Roast Chicken 1 3- to 4-pound chicken Salt 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons butter

Rinse chicken in cold water and pat dry. Make a pocket between skin and breast of chicken by slipping your fingers under skin and between breast, starting at the cavity end. Carefully place four or five mint leaves on each side of breast, under skin.

Rub cavity with 1 tablespoon of butter. Salt cavity, add rest of mint, and truss chicken.

Rub remaining butter over chicken. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast chicken in covered casserole in oven preheated to 400 degrees F. for about 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Garnish with mint sprigs before serving.

If you prefer the traditional mint sauce rather than mint jelly with lamb, the following can be made in a snap. Mint Sauce 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar 4 tablespoons water 1/3 cup finely chopped mint leaves 1/2 cup vinegar

Heat sugar with water in small saucepan until sugar has dissolved. Set aside to cool before adding chopped mint and vinegar.

Let stand about 1 hour before serving to bring out flavor. Mint Dressingfor Green Salad 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/4 cup tarragon vinegar 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a jar and shake thoroughly. Let stand an hour or more before dressing any lettuce salad.

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