Ways to get the season in mint condition

Holidays wouldn't be same without sweet taste of herb

December 24, 2003|By Francine Halvorsen | Francine Halvorsen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the quickest ways to become a child again at this time of year is to take a bite of a mint candy cane.

But the pleasure of mint isn't found only in red and white sticks of candy. The Starbucks in Mount Washington sells hundreds of cups of Peppermint Hot Chocolate and Peppermint Mocha a week. "People tell us that they miss it when we discontinue it until next season," store manager Dawn Drater says.

At Naron's, Baltimore candy maker since 1905, sales manager Murph Scherr says: "Our mint truffles are one of the holiday's best sellers and our after-dinner mints are very popular. People reach for them at this time of year."

Mint tea is a great antidote to holiday overindulgence or the cold or flu. Candied mint leaves are a treat that requires no cooking, and fresh mint leaves enhance everything from chocolate cake to creme brulee. And while we usually think of mint as an accompaniment to dessert, it works as well in a pesto on salmon fillets.

Ann Wilder, founder and owner of Vanns Spices, grew up in Columbia, S.C., and says that when she was a child, a favorite treat was butter mints.

"We would mix butter and sugar with a few drops of peppermint oil and divide it into two batches. We'd add red food coloring to one and green to the other. Then we would shape them into little figures the same way you would with marzipan.

"Our entire family would get into the candy making, and I remember our neighbors made the same kind of sweets at the holidays. We sell a lot of peppermint oil at Christmastime. I wonder if anyone is still making butter mints?"

Originally from Asia and Europe, mint has flourished in the Americas and grows in great variety and abundance. Mint is said to be named for the nymph Minthe, a favorite of Pluto's in Greek mythology, who was transformed by his jealous wife, Persephone, into a weedy herb. Pluto, in return, made certain that mint was fragrant and beneficial.

The tradition of serving mint on particular occasions goes back to ancient times when, as a symbol of hospitality, the herb was strewn on tabletops and floors for the arrival of honored guests. Mint also was mixed with honey and made into sweetmeats and wines to brighten dark winter nights.

The first candy canes were white and made by hand. It was just 50 years ago that a machine was invented for mass-producing the red and white candy canes.

Today it is difficult to imagine Christmas without candy canes, but the pleasure of mint can be savored any time of the year.

Candied Mint Leaves

50 to 60 mint leaves

2 egg whites

1/2 cup finely granulated sugar

Rinse leaves and dry them between paper towels. Lightly beat egg whites in a small, deep bowl. Place sugar in shallow dish.

Dip the leaves in the egg whites, dab them on a paper towel, then dredge them with the sugar and place on a cookie sheet to dry for 3 hours or overnight.

Pan-Roasted Salmon With Mint Pesto

Makes 4 servings

four 6-ounce salmon fillets

1/4 cup virgin olive oil

MINT PESTO:

2/3 cup virgin olive oil

2 or 3 garlic cloves, cut up

1 cup fresh mint leaves, large stems removed

2 teaspoons dried mint flakes

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 cup toasted walnuts

Preheat oven to 360 degrees. Lay salmon fillets on oiled baking sheet. Place 2/3 cup olive oil, garlic, mint and salt in food processor and puree. Add walnuts and pulse until finely chopped. Spread pesto on salmon fillets.

Roast fillets for 20 minutes. If possible, place under broiler for final 2 minutes. Serve immediately on warm plates.

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