It’s a well-known fact among apartment-hunters that when real estate agents tell you “cozy,” what they really mean is cramped. Likewise, when garden writers tell you that mint is “vigorous,” what they really mean is pushy.
The very first thing UMaine Cooperative Extension Educator Kathy Savoie said when I called her to ask about mint earlier this month , before I had the chance to even formulate a question, acknowledged that fact. “If you have mint, you have a lot a mint,” she said. “You never have a little mint.”
Chef Joe Schafer, of Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, backed her up. The restaurant grows mint in its extensive kitchen garden. “It tries to take over,” he said, adding that the herb has “a delusion of global conquest.”
I know this from personal experience. When I moved into my house seven years ago, I wanted mint for my garden. The idea of stepping outside my kitchen door to snip fresh, aromatic mint for whatever I happened to be cooking at the moment was irresistible. Also, for part of the year anyway, I’d avoid having to fork over $2.99 for mint encased in an environmentally unsound plastic box, half of which I too often end up throwing away.
On Craigslist, under Free Stuff, I bumped into a local gardener thinning out her own mint patch, and we agreed to meet in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s in Portland. There, she handed me a bounteous boxful of plants – three varieties of mint for my nascent garden.
I planted them along a path outside the kitchen door, snuggling up to the rain barrel. But in the years since – mint is a perennial – they’ve had other ideas, their own ideas. The mint has infiltrated several daylilies, nudged the Siberian irises and is making eager forays into the lavender and the lupine.
This is not a complaint.
IN THE KITCHEN
As I’d anticipated, it never fails to make me happy to nip into the garden and snip mint for lunch or dinner. At my house, julienned mint regularly goes into a salad with watermelon, feta cheese, thinly sliced red onion and freshly squeezed lime juice. It gets added to quinoa salads. I use it to make all manner of dips and raita with yogurt, dill, cilantro and chopped cucumbers. I chop it up with other tender herbs and beat it into butter; a dab of the compound butter gently melting into fish or vegetables provides an instant dinner upgrade.
On cool summer evenings, I snip my mint for a pretty, fragrant “tea,” crushing it between my fingers, adding boiling water, steeping it for a few minutes and stirring in honey. In the dog days of summer, I stock my fridge with a pitcher of cold water, flavored with sprigs of mint and slices of orange and cucumber. The drink is both pretty and rejuvenating. I steep mint in milk or cream to make custards and ice cream, and I chop it up and add it to chocolate cake or brownies.
Mint, like cardamom, swings both ways in the kitchen – sweet and savory, which is among the reasons why “you don’t necessarily have to have a recipe in mind because there are so many ways you can use it,” Savoie said. She suggested using it in pesto in place of the traditional basil, drying it in the microwave for future use (dried mint, which tastes different from fresh, is often used in Persian and Lebanese kitchens), and flavoring a simple syrup with mint and lime to stir into drinks.
At Earth at Hidden Pond, Schafer sheepishly admits he likes the classic combination of mint with lamb. “I hate to say this, but it really is true: It’s quite delightful with lamb. Not the green jelly like your grandparents used, more like the English style of mint jelly. You make simple syrup, add gelatin and white wine vinegar and chopped fresh mint. Lots and lots of mint. It’s sweet and sour and really quite lovely with lamb.”
Another way Earth makes use of mint, when it’s in abundance, is by making mint oil. The kitchen blanches the mint quickly, shocks it in ice water to set the color, drains it and purees the herb with grapeseed or canola oil.
“It makes a strikingly beautiful green oil that has a really pronounced mint flavor,” Shafer said.
The puree is strained out and the flavored oil used, for one, in a dressing with fish sauce and lime juice, which gets added to a carrot and mango salad.
Dishes like that one give a nod to Thailand, a country that highly values mint. (I was briefly excited to find on the internet the Bureau of Royal Thai Mint. Wow! You’re not kidding! They really do like their mint, I thought to myself, but it turns out the bureau oversees the minting of money.) At Boda in Portland, chef and co-owner Dan Sriprasert uses chopped mint leaves in Goi Moo grilled pork belly salad and Goi Hed grilled mushroom salad; whole leaves in Yum Nua Thai beef salad, an occasional special; and small sprigs alongside dishes like grilled pork with rice or fried whole fish with spicy dipping sauce.
“It’s not only for decoration but when you eat all the herbs … it gives you a nice fresh flavor and helps to cool the spiciness down,” Sriprasert wrote in an email. “In Thai cuisine we use a lot of peppermint in the salad. It brings out a lot of fresh flavor.”
Sriprasert said mint grows easily in Thailand’s climate. People “grow their own herbs, and they always grow mint.”
IN THE GARDEN
Several types of Thai mint are among the hundreds of plants in the mint family. When I reached out to Mischa Schuler, who owns the Portland-based Wild Carrot Herbs, to visit me to help me to identify the types in my garden, she emailed this back: “Oh wow! Mints are exceedingly cool! (ha! that’s an herbal joke!)”
But Schuler was out of town, so I was on my own. Using photographs on the internet, I tried to ID my own cultivars. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think I am growing spearmint, curly mint and apple mint – or maybe that last is lemon balm? Which, yes, is a mint, one that smells, you guessed it, lemony.
One way to help identify members of the mint family – its Latin name is Lamiaceae – is by their square stems and opposite leaves. Confusingly, the family encompasses plants you probably don’t think of as mint, at least I didn’t, such as rosemary, oregano, basil, bee balm, salvia, catnip and “a few evil cousins that we consider weeds,” according to the Illinois Cooperative Extension, which goes on to list among them Creeping Charlie, a small highly invasive plant with pretty purple flowers. Are you wondering where you can find Creeping Charlie? All over my backyard.
Common mints in Maine gardens include spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint and mojito mint. “It seems there are new cultivars every day,” according to Mary Wicklund, volunteer manager in the horticulture department at UMaine Cooperative Extension, “as growers focus on growing mints to maximize oil extraction, and creating new color patterns or flavor profiles.” (Most recipes, however, simply call for generic “mint.”)
Bees love mint, she added, so it’s good to let the plants flower to feed the pollinators.
Sure thing. There is plenty for everyone.
Someone probably should have told me seven years ago to plant my mint in pots in order to contain them, make that restrain them. That said, I am apparently not too worried about being overrun. Recently, I stopped at Ocean House Farm in Cape Elizabeth looking for hollyhocks. The colors of the hollyhock variety they had in stock weren’t what I had in mind. Instead, I went home with an impulse purchase – a chocolate mint plant.
MINTY LAMB AND SAUSAGE ORZO WITH GRILLED ARTICHOKES
Recipe from Food & Wine magazine. Next time I make this, I’ll double the pesto and use the leftover on fish or vegetables.
1/2 pound ground lamb
1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Mint Pesto (see recipe below)
1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained (6 ounces)
1 cup orzo
1 large ripe tomato, diced
1/4 pound feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper
Light a grill. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. In a medium bowl, mix the lamb and sausage with 3 tablespoons of the pesto. Form the mixture into eight 3-inch patties and brush with oil. Thread the artichoke hearts onto skewers. Grill the patties and artichokes over high heat until the meat is cooked through and the artichokes are lightly charred, about 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, salt the boiling water. Add the orzo and cook until al dente. Drain the orzo and transfer it to a bowl. Add the tomato, feta and the remaining 3 tablespoons of pesto. Remove the artichokes from the skewers and add them to the orzo. Crumble the patties into the orzo and add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, toss well and serve.
Recipe from Food & Wine magazine.
Yield: 1/2 cup
3/4 cup mint leaves
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley
2 scallions, thickly sliced
2 medium garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a food processor, combine the mint, parsley, scallions, garlic and lemon zest. With the machine on, add the olive oil in a thin stream. Season the pesto with salt.
This recipe is from “Mediterranean Cookery” by Claudia Roden. It calls for a lot of lemon juice, which makes for an assertive, stimulating salad, perfect for a sweltering day. I give Roden’s measurements for the herbs here, but you can change those amounts based on your own preferences; I used more mint and less parsley than listed here. I used No. 2 bulgur, and threw in a half an avocado, diced, that was lurking in my refrigerator and needed using up. Tabbouleh offers nowhere to hide; if you don’t use high-quality olive oil and juicy summer tomatoes at their peak, it’s not worth making. The salad tastes best on the day it’s made.
1/2 cup medium-fine bulgur
Juice of 2 or more lemons
Salt and pepper
Generous 1/3 cup good-quality olive oil
3 large bunches flat-leaf parsley (reserve the stems to make stock)
Large bunch fresh mint, leaves only (unless the stems are very small and tender)
6 scallions, finely chopped
3 tomatoes, diced
Start an hour before you are ready to serve the dish so that the bulgur becomes well-impregnated with dressing. Soak the bulgur in plenty of cold water for about 15 minutes, then rinse and drain, squeezing out the excess water. Put the bulgur in a bowl with the lemon juice, salt and pepper. When it has absorbed the lemon juice and become plump and tender, add the oil.
Finely chop the herbs just before serving. It is better to do this by hand but so much easier to use a food processor. If you use a processor, make sure that you do not turn the leaves to mush. Mix the chopped herbs with the scallions and the bulgur and taste to adjust the seasoning.
This recipe is adapted from one in Richard Sax’ “Classic Home Desserts.” It’s very rich, so unless you are feeding teenage boys, small portions are enough.
Serves 4 to 5
2¼ cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 generous cup mint leaves and stems
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 large egg
2 egg yolks
2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whipped cream and mint sprigs for garnish
In a medium-sized pot on the stovetop, bring 2 cups of the milk and 1/4 cup of the sugar to just below a boil. Add the mint leaves and stems and let the mixture steep, off heat, for 1 hour. Strain, pressing on the mint leaves, and compost the mint.
Meanwhile, whisk together the cocoa, cornstarch, salt and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Stir in the remaining 1/4 cup cold milk. Bring the mint-flavored milk back to just below a boil on the stovetop. Slowly add a little of the hot milk mixture into the cocoa mixture, then stir that back into the bulk of the flavored milk in a pot on the stove. Bring the mix to a gentle boil and gently boil, while stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes until the mixture is fairly thick.
Meanwhile whisk together the whole egg and egg yolks. Slowly whisk in a little of the hot cocoa milk mixture to temper the eggs so that they don’t curdle. Then slowly whisk that yolk mixture back into the cocoa milk mixture in the pot. Cook over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens a little more, stirring constantly, for about 4 minutes.
Take the pot off the heat. Stir in the chocolate and the butter pieces until they melt into the pudding. Add the vanilla extract and stir. Strain if you need to through a fine-meshed sieve (if you think any of the egg has curdled). Divvy the pudding up among 4 to 5 small serving dishes. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. When you are ready to serve the pudding, top each dish with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprig of mint.