I was surprised when I returned from Lebanon recently to find the herbs in the back corner garden had come into their own. City-dwelling for so many years made a porch gardener out of me, and I confess I had no idea that some of the herbs I planted last summer would come back up again this year. There they were, the parsley inspiring thoughts of all of the tabbouleh I ate in Lebanon, the sage begging to be crisp-fried and bathed in brown butter over pasta, the chives standing at the ready to be snipped for poached eggs with hollandaise.
All of that is so good, so delicious, but it’s what’s missing from the garden that is capturing my attention right about now, and that is the mint, the nana. Here is a flavor that reigns supreme on the Lebanese table, and mint is so transporting in aroma and taste that whenever there is nana in anything I eat, a flash of home surfaces, and I can feel the soft green grass of my childhood under my bare feet. This must be the reason I want mint chip ice cream cones all summer.
Mint is easy to grow—far too easy, some would say. It grows like a weed and feels so confident in any garden that it tries to become king of the soil. My grandmother Alice kept a large, albeit contained, area on the side of her house in Ohio just for her nana. That way when supper time came around and she was making the salad, she could send one of her seven children out to the yard to bring in the sprigs of mint that any salad of hers would be incomplete without.
When my mother moved to Michigan, in an act of true uprooting, she pulled out a hefty clump of her mother’s nana and laid it down in a similar plot of soil on the side of her own house. And yes, when supper rolled around, she sent one of her five children out to the side yard to bring in the mint.
Then when Mom decided it was time to sell the family house and move across town, the thing that worried us as much as the move was the nana. We’ll just have to dig it up and bring it with us, she said. Seems easy enough, but no measure of water, sunshine, or lovin’ made that transplanted mint grow.
We did try again last fall with another round of roots from the old house, planted in pots and placed inside for the winter. You can guess what happened to it. An annoying thing, given that there is a geranium on the window sill in the kitchen here that has stretched up to the sun and bloomed non-stop for three years. It’s nice, but I’d rather the nana grow if I had a choice for where a green thumb would bestow its success.
Recently we made a visit to the old house again and saw that my grandmother’s nana was up, just as it’s been doing ever since it came over from Ohio 50 years ago. We dug it up and planted it, this time in its own area on the side of my mom’s new house downstate. I don’t know if we’ll ever get that same nana all the way up north and thriving here on Main Street. But last week we admired the beautiful mint garden that is up again over at Pond Hill Farm. The way Sharon pulled out the mint with its roots for us and gave us a few growing tips made me consider that my even grandmother’s nana roots had to come from somewhere, and that setting down new roots might just yield as much beauty and bounty as the old ones did.
Lebanese Potato Salad
Dress the potatoes while they’re still warm, but wait to add the mint until the potatoes have cooled off —otherwise the mint will turn dark and you’ll lose the green that makes the salad so pretty. I love the healthy quotient of this dish: vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free! This recipe makes about 8 servings.
3 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and cut in ½-inch dice
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Juice of three large lemons
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup finely sliced scallions, white and green parts
¼ cup finely chopped or julienned mint
Cook the potatoes: place them in a large saucepan and cover by 1 inch with cold water. Add a teaspoon of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Remove the lid and reduce the heat to medium. Test a sample of the potatoes every minute or so with the tip of a paring knife. They are ready when the knife cuts into the potato with just a hint of resistance. Taste the samples, looking for an al dente quality. Russet potatoes cook in about 13 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the potatoes or they will turn to mash when they are stirred with the dressing.
Drain the potatoes and place in a medium bowl. Season the warm potatoes with salt, lemon, and olive oil, stirring very gently. Taste and adjust seasonings. When the potatoes have cooled down almost to room temperature, add the scallions and mint, stirring gently to combine.
This potato salad is delicious warm, as well as the next day (cover and refrigerate over night. Bring to room temperature and add more fresh mint, again stirring gently).
Find a PDF of this recipe here.
(A version of this essay appeared in my column, Main Street Kitchen, in the Harbor Light this month).