Food, Lifestyle

These spring menu ideas are minty fresh

Crystallized ginger and fresh mint sorbet is served with a lemon shortcake topped with blueberries that have been cooked and cooled.


With springtime comes watermelon, peas and mint. I can’t wait, and the many warm days in the past few weeks have made the wait harder.

Peas, being the first food to appear in gardens, are celebrated all over Italy. My relatives talk of going from village to village to experience the first peas of spring.  Risottos, pasta dishes, soups and sauces made with peas are the stars of the season. And, for me, the perfect companion to peas is mint.

Last spring, I converted the zinc bathtub that my grandbabies no longer use as an outdoor wading pool into an herb garden. My neighbor, Steve, kindly drilled several holes in it after he saw me struggling to create drainage with a hammer and big nails. It was a worthwhile endeavor I love being able to quickly access the herbs growing right outside my kitchen door.

The tub is supplemented by large clay pots, prettier than plastic but requiring more watering. Wooden wine crates, which can be found at yard sales, are also good containers for growing herbs. Like the fancy Vietnamese restaurant I adored in Paris, my salads were made bright by fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, parsley and several kinds of mint. My iced tea was made so much more special by mint-infused ice cubes, and the watermelon and mint martinis were a pleasure.  

A watermelon and mint salad with a sprinkling of feta to begin a meal is a wonderful combination of flavors that sparkles with the joy of warm weather. And a sorbet of crystalized ginger and mint to end the meal is perfection for my palate. A simple pasta dish with fresh peas and prosciutto would be nice sandwiched between. A soup made with peas and fresh mint, served hot in the chilly winter will be delightful served chilled in hotter weather and it’s great for picnics.

My mother was always proud of a roasted lamb that she served with “her” mint jelly. It was a little bit of a cheat.  The finely-chopped mint leaves were simmered in store-bought grape or apple jelly, but it was good.

The very hearty perennial mint was among the first plants to appear in the garden and the last to go. My mint, which seems to sprout new stems every year, gave me so much joy this past year, especially in my favorite watermelon martinis with very, very chilled vodka. I recently took the bottle of vodka from the freezer to create space for a sorbet with fresh mint. These are not seasonal items in my book; they are delicious any time of the year.

How lucky are we that the markets stock beautiful fresh herbs all year. Mint, especially mint, is heartier and lasts a lot longer than most herbs.

A kitchen is not complete without an ice cream maker.  They are quite inexpensive and the pleasure is enormous.  One summer, I shared a cottage on Nantucket with a fancy group of New Yorkers. I had the house from Monday to Thursday. My then-4-year-old daughter Danielle was my constant companion, as the older kids were working in the restaurant and only visited occasionally. We had no car, but an old bike was adequate transportation to take us to thrift shops and beaches, our favorite destinations.

In one of the “junk” shops (as Dani called them), I found a very used ice cream maker. We picked every edible berry on the island and made sorbets (without dairy) and ice cream using half-and-half mostly, but also with buttermilk and other dairy products from local farms. On a very hot summer day, sorbet is crisper and more refreshing, reminiscent of the “slush” that was so popular when I was growing up in East Boston.

Though some fancy home ice cream makers may come with their own refrigeration, the simpler ones like mine require that the bowl be fully frozen so it can chill the ice cream mix. Mine stays in the freezer all summer, so it can be ready to go at any time.  

Last week, just after the weather turned cold again, was opening day for our local ice cream stand. The boys were excited, so I took them for this rite of spring. Two small cones and I’d spent almost $10, including the dollar tip I threw in for the poor child who was scooping ice cream on a chilly day. The poor timing was not lost on my two guys, but I reminded them that this summer we are going to have a lot of new flavors to experience with my ice cream maker, nice for their palate and for my wallet.

With the weather going up and down, our food choices this past weekend were a blend: Pasta Carbonara, kale- and-pear salad with a citrus vinaigrette and a lemon-and- crystalized-ginger granita  a perfect ending to the lunch and a delightful weekend.

Saturday’s freezing-cold day was perfect for staying in pajamas all day. We watched a 3 1/2-hour Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan titled “No Direction Home.” It brought back a memory of me and my family, just three kids at the time, at a Dylan concert at Boston Garden circa 1970. Particularly satisfying was watching the film with the captions on, and seeing Dylan’s song lyrics on the screen brought home just how amazing his writing was. It was a great way to spend a very cold winter day that warmed my heart.

Crystalized Ginger-and-Mint Granita

Back in the days of more formal dinners, granita was served to cleanse the palette between courses. A granita is commonly made with pureed fruit. You can use any herb or fruit you like. Here’s how to make it:

Place a metal pie tin in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Place 1/2 cup of fresh mint leaves in the food processor with 1/2 cup of granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon of crystalized ginger, roughly chopped, and the juice of 1/2 lemon strained of seeds.

Add 1 cup of water and pulse to dissolve the sugar.  

Pour the mixture into the tin and freeze until it sets, about 30 minutes.

Using a metal spoon, push the frozen granita into the center.  

Do this two or three times every 30 minutes, until it is slushy, leaving the metal spoon in the freezer.

With a small ice cream scoop, spoon into a glass serving dish and garnish with fresh mint.

Lemon Shortcakes with Blueberries  

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  

In a food processor, place 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour with 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, the zest of 1 lemon and 2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pulse to combine.  

Cut up 1 1/2 sticks of cold butter and add to the processor. Pulse to form small peas.

Refrigerate 30 minutes and add 3/4 cup of heavy cream; use a fork to combine.  

Smear the flour mixture with the palm of your hand to mix, and knead slightly; do not overwork.

Divide dough in half. Roll dough into a circle about 12 inches in diameter by 1 1/2 inches thick.

Using a glass or cookie cutter about two inches round, cut out about 16 cakes, eight in each circle.

Brush each cake with 1 tablespoon of cream and sprinkle sugar on each one.  

Bake about 15 minutes or until slightly browned.

Place 1 cup of blueberries and 3 tablespoons of sugar in small saute pan and simmer until the berries burst. Set aside to cool.

Heat the cakes to warm them. Top each with whipped cream and a spoonful of blueberries, cooked and cooled.  

Serve on the side of the granita, with a mint garnish.

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