Spring Refresher

Celebrate the start of the growing season with mint, an ancient herb with versatile uses.

Tiny emerald leaves of fresh mint appear in the garden this month, and it’s a sure sign that warm weather is on the way. By early May, when local farmers’ markets open, the fast-growing herb will be in plentiful supply.

From its earliest use, mint was regarded as healthful. For example, an Egyptian medical text dating to 1550 B.C. known as the “Ebers papyrus” included peppermint among its more than 700 medicinal plants. Many different cultures have stories and superstitions surrounding the herb. In one early Greek myth, a beautiful nymph named Mentha attracted the attention of Hades until his jealous wife, Persephone, turned her into a mint plant; in remembrance, young brides in Greece traditionally added fresh mint to their bridal wreaths. In ancient Rome, the philosopher Pliny recommended that students use mint to “exhilarate the mind.”

Today, these ideas seem prescient—we still use mint to combat nausea and to settle the stomach, and research has proved that the herb stimulates alertness. In one NASA-funded study, scientists from Wheeling (W.Va.) Jesuit University found that the smell of peppermint lowered fatigue by 15 percent, increased alertness by 30 percent and decreased frustration by 25 percent.

Since ancient times, mint has also had diverse culinary uses. The Romans pickled it in vinegar and introduced it to England; in Morocco, mint tea is the basis for an elaborate ritual of brewing and pouring that concludes the finest meals and also welcomes guests into a home, shop or office. Spearmint, rather than peppermint, is especially common in cookery, from Vietnamese or Thai spring rolls and Indian chutneys and curries to the English mint jelly served with roast lamb or Italian bean and vegetable dishes.

American cooks often underestimate mint’s versatility. Creative thinking in the kitchen can yield memorable dishes that take just minutes to prepare: Israeli couscous salad with mint, blanched green beans and champagne vinaigrette; easy pasta with mint and summer zucchini; creamy spring-pea soup flavored with mint; or a quick dessert of fresh strawberries, cantaloupe or pineapple tossed with sliced mint leaves. When a surplus of mint is at hand and the weather is warm, making drinks with fresh mint is perhaps most appealing of all, whether you mix up mint juleps or icy mint-infused lemonade. However you choose to enjoy this bright, invigorating herb, its sweet, refreshing flavor and scent are certain to inspire you.

Margie Dagnal, the proprietor of Goose Creek Gardens in Oakdale, specializes in culinary herbs, and grows and sells a variety of mints at local markets and through her CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). (To find out specifics, visit goosecreekgardens.com.) We spoke with her to find out a bit more about how to make the most of this wonderful herb.

All About Mint: Although spearmint and peppermint are the most commonly used culinary mints, all told there are more than 30 species. Goose Creek Gardens grows a variety known as chocolate mint, which Dagnal describes as having a “peppermint-patty flavor” that makes it ideal for desserts. For creative recipes like chocolate mint pesto made with honey, almonds and hazelnut oil, visit the Web site. Other mint varieties you might see at local markets such as Farmers@Firehouse (which opens on Sat., May 9) include apple mint, a pretty plant that works well in salads. To store fresh mint, prop it stems down into a tall glass of water, cover the leaves with a plastic bag and use within three or four days.

Culinary Mints
: The gray-green leaves of the spearmint plant have a milder yet more complex aroma and flavor than peppermint. It’s the type of mint sold in produce sections and most commonly used in recipes. Bright-green peppermint leaves have a simpler, clearer taste and a hint of peppery spiciness. Peppermint is unique because it contains menthol, which causes temperature-sensing nerve cells in the mouth to signal the brain that they are cooler than they really are. This distinctive cooling property disappears when peppermint is cooked. Peppermint’s volatile oils give it a stronger scent than spearmint and contribute pungency to the peppermint oil that flavors ice cream, candies, chocolates and crème-de-menthe liqueur.

Mint Tea: Make your own mint tea by using 3 teaspoons of fresh leaves, or 1 heaping teaspoon dried, in 1 cup of boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or to taste. Expand your horizons at local teahouses by sipping tea flavors such as peppermint rose, an invigorating blend of peppermint leaves and rosebuds at Te Café (2000 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412/422-8888); or crisp spearmint with green tea in a traditional Moroccan mint blend at Your Inner Vagabond (4130 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/683-1623).

Grow Your Own: You can mix up pitchers of homemade mojitos all summer long if you master the art of growing mint. This invasive plant is best-suited to containers to prevent it from taking over the garden. Some care is required to keep up with the plant’s fast growth. “If the stems come up and the leaves look too tiny after fully opening, the plant is root-bound,” says Margie Dagnal. She recommends cutting the roots in half and repotting the plant as often as every couple of weeks (never put the cuttings into the compost). She also recommends frequent watering. Dagnal will be selling mint seedlings at the Phipps’ May Market, which this year is at a new location at the conservatory in Oakland (tentative dates are May 8-9; visit phipps.conservatory.org for details). If you want to grow spearmint in particular, buy a spearmint seedling—it doesn’t always come true from seed.

Categories: Eat + Drink Features