Meatless Monday: Mint Condition

Two weeks back, a friend and I were discussing fresh mint with the passion of true believers. This was made trickier by the fact we do not share a common language. But we bond over many things including an abiding appreciation of mint's underrated culinary attributes and its healing properties. Mint is also, my friend insists, easy to grow. So easy, she came over the next day with a ready-to-grow sprig she'd snipped from her garden.

It is prime season for herb-growing around most of the country right now, but in Miami, it is the season for burning up both people and produce. My Obama victory garden is fallow except for the collard greens which thrive on abuse.

I effusively thanked my friend for the mint then, looking around my sun-parched back yard, asked where to plant it.

She did not understand.

I performed an elaborate Kabuki-esque pantomime. "Where should I plant it?"

"Ah!" she smiled. "Under bush."

Okay, not so helpful, but very kind of her and here I'd scored some free, gorgeous mint I could, with luck, not kill.

I figured she meant mint needs partial shade, so I filled a drainable container with potting soil, made a small hole for the mint and gently set it inside. I gave it water and my best wishes and placed it in the shadiest part of my back yard.

Within three days, the mint announced it was unhappy. It drooped. It wilted. Bits browned, crisped then fell off. I tried more sun, less sun, more water, less water. I ran it all over the garden. Still, it looked destined for the plant graveyard. This was going to be hard to explain to my friend -- both shaming and difficult to impart. I practiced letting my shoulders sag. I drew my finger across my neck in the universal sign for dead.

Out of growing ideas, I brought the pot of mint inside and placed it on my sunny kitchen counter so it could live out the rest of its days in peace. It cheered up overnight. Within a few more days, it rallied and put out green shoots.

For most of you, growing mint is a breeze. It thrives in temperate climes. In fact you have to watch it if you plant it in your garden -- it's invasive and its seemingly delicate tendrils will crowd out heartier-looking plants. There's over two dozen varieties of mint, all rich in vitamin A and C, soothing of nerves and bellies. And fresh mint adds such a zing to entrees, salads and stir-fries, you won't believe it.

I'll plant mint in my garden when Miami hits its growing season -- October. But even if you live in a shoebox-sized studio you can, as I do, grow mint, basil, all kinds of fresh herbs on your window sill. My resurrected mint is testament to how forgiving and benevolent nature is. Be benevolent back. You can't be more of a locavore than eating food you grow yourself. That's a difference you can make and understand in any language.

Asian Rice Noodles With Chili, Mint and Lime

8 ounces rice noodles
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 garlic cloves
8 ounces mushrooms
2 carrots
2 ribs celery
2 cups broccoli florets or 2 cups fresh spinach, packed
8 ounces firm tofu, drained and cut into bite-sized cubes
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
6 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons lite soy sauce
1/2 fresh jalapeno or good pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 cup chopped scallions, plus more if desired for garnish
1/2 cup chopped mint, packed, plus more if desired for garnish
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, packed
1/2 cup chopped peanuts, roasted

Prepare noodles according to package directions. Meanwhile, mince garlic and optional jalapeno, chop mushrooms, celery and broccoli (if using).

Drain noodles and set aside.

In a wok or large skillet, heat canola oil over medium-high heat. Add minced and chopped vegetables. Stir until vegetables soften, about 4 to 6 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir together sesame oil, lime juice, sugar and soy. Stir until sugar dissolves.

Wrap tofu with paper towels and gently squeeze to remove excess water. Blot dry and cut into bite-sized cubes. Add tofu and noodles to vegetable mixture. Pour lime sauce over all and toss well. Stir occasionally until mixture is heated through, about 5 minutes. Add spinach leaves, if using and chopped mint, scallions and cilantro. Toss to combine ingredients and serve.

Top with chopped nuts and additional scallions and mint.

Serves 4.