If you have ever planted mint in your garden, you are aware of just how hearty the herb can be. It can quickly dominate your grounds if a close eye isn't kept on the new shoots that seem to sprout up almost daily. For this reason, home gardeners often choose to plant it in large pots rather than directly in the ground to keep it contained. Thriving in the moist soil and ideal temperatures seen in Southern California, fresh mint does extremely well year-round locally, and has especially flourished in the recent warm weather. Whether harvested from your garden or purchased at the farmers market, it offers a refreshing finish to meals. There are several varieties you can plant in your garden (usually during early spring, when the threat of frost is gone and ground temperatures have warmed), offering distinct flavors of apple, pineapple, orange, lemon, ginger, and one of my favorite ice cream toppers -- chocolate mint. While these varieties are commonly found potted at nurseries and oftentimes at local farmers markets, there are two main ones: spearmint and peppermint.

They are the best for cooking purposes. The large, bright green leaves are loaded with flavor. Bite into one and you'll see how refreshing it is. The flavor translates well in salads, sliced fruits, desserts, jellies, as well as grilled meats and veggies. I prefer using spearmint, which is a bit sweeter, especially in a fruit salad or dessert.

Fresh mint is a healthy addition to meals as it is low in saturated fat and cholesterol. It is a good source of thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus and zinc, and also contains dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper and manganese. Not only does it pack in the flavor, it packs in the nutrients.

With such warm weather last weekend, I decided to pull out the barbecue and make some tasty mint-marinated chicken skewers loaded with onion, local mushrooms, bell pepper and canned pineapple, offering up a great balance of fruit, veggies and protein. If a barbecue is not available, this can easily be done in an aluminum baking dish under the boiler, about 5 minutes per side.

Sam Edelman is general manager of the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market Association. His column appears every Thursday. E-mail him at food@newspress.com.