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Mint...just say the word and cool, refreshing images come to mind: frosty glasses of lemonade garnished with curly sprigs of spearmint; the clean, chilling taste of a peppermint candy cane; Southern gentlemen and ladies sitting in their rocking chairs on the veranda, lazily rocking back and forth, fanning themselves and sipping Mint Juleps. Even chewing gum, mouthwash, and toothpaste companies use images of crisp, clean snowy slopes, or cool, green glens to let us know how refreshing their mint flavored products are.
Most of us are most familiar with peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata), yet beyond that there are about 25 species, with some sources saying as many as 600 varieties. Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, mints interbreed so easily it is often hard for even the experts to distinguish and separate all the varieties. This confusion dates back as far as the 9th century when a monk proclaimed he "would rather count the sparks in Vulcan's furnace than to count the varieties of mint."
One characteristic shared by all mints is the square stem, a trait of the Labiatea family of which marjoram, catnip and basil are also members. Another is the volatile oil menthol, which gives mint that characteristic cooling, cleansing feel to varying degrees in the different varieties.
Curious to see what types of mint were available, I went for a "tasting" to one of the nurseries in my area that is known for carrying specialty plants. I was pleasantly surprised with their large and diverse selection: apple mint, chocolate mint, spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, Bergamont orange mint, Egyptian mint, basil mint, Corsican mint, Persian mint, and ginger mint -- truly an herb gardener's dream come true!
I started with dessert first, tasting the deep green, blade-shaped leaves of the Chocolate Mint. It was like biting into one of the old style Girl Scout chocolate mint cookies -- rich, chocolatey and cooling mint all in one bite. This would be a good one to chop finely and incorporate into softened vanilla ice cream, then top with fresh raspberries for an easy summer dessert.
Next I sampled the Pineapple Mint (Mentha sauveolens varigata). Its softly rounded, fuzzy leaves with a splash of yellow on the edges make this a very decorative, as well as tasty, addition to any garden. The flavor is mild: mint with a slight citrus background. It goes well with melons, and cucumbers, and makes an attractive garnish, either fresh or crystallized. In the garden, be sure to plant it in the shade as it tends to scorch in the full sun.
Bergamot Mint (Mentha piperita var. critata) caught my interest next. It is known as lemon mint, orange mint, or eau de cologne mint. With its sweet citrusy, lavender-like aroma and taste, it is a natural for flavoring teas or ice beverages. Its hardy flavors make it a tasty accent for lamb and fish. Bergamot mint is also used to scent soaps and perfumes, hence the name "eau de cologne" mint.
Ginger mint (Mentha spicata species) is another mint that is as attractive as it is tasty, with its heart-shaped light green leaves variegated with gold. It's perfect as a seasoning for both fruit and vegetables.
Finally on to the king of all mints: Peppermint (Mentha piperita). The potent taste of the leaves -- very strong menthol -- took my breath away. Very cool and clean indeed. I tend to use it, sparingly, with sweet dishes: candies, meringues, cookies, cakes and iced tea.
Peppermint is the mint that is most often used commercially -- in liqueurs, toothpastes, soaps, and mouthwashes -- because of its strong, pure qualities. In medicines, it is used not only as a pleasant flavoring, but also because it contains healing properties as well. The menthol is wonderful for clearing up a stuffy head cold, relieving headache, as well as being a strong digestive aid and a mild sedative.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata), with its sharp, pointed, toothed leaves is one of the most versatile of the mints. With its less intense, more herb-like flavor, it pairs well with a wide spectrum of foods. Combined with orange peel in vinegar, it serves as a marinade for lamb as well as a dressing for spring salads. Combined with basil, mint adds the cooling element to many hot Asian dishes. Mixed with bulgar, red onions, tomatoes, parsley, and a lemony vinaigrette, it becomes Tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern salad perfect for summertime picnics. Nothing says spring quite so deliciously as freshly steamed new peas with a sprinkling of mint. Carrots, potatoes, eggplant, white or black beans, and corn all sparkle with the addition of freshly chopped spearmint. And nothing but just picked mint will do for the properly made Mint Julep, the making of which, as said by a 19th century Southern gentleman, "is not a rite to be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee."
Mint has been known as both a seasoning and a medicine for centuries. Mint is even a part of Greek mythology. According to the legend, Minthe originally was a nymph, and Pluto's lover. When his wife Persephone found out, in a fit of rage she turned Minthe into a lowly plant, to be trod upon. Pluto could not undo the spell, but softened the spell by giving her a sweet scent which would perfume the air when her leaves were stepped upon.
Growing mint is a simple proposition; it is keeping it from taking over the garden that takes work. Given medium rich, moist soil and shade to dappled sunlight, mint will thrive and soon form a lush, thick carpet. Keep it cut back, especially once it begins to bloom, otherwise it will become invasive. Since many of the varieties propagate from underground runners, you may have to just pull out wandering plants. Most mints thrive as house plants as well.
So whether you choose the varigated varieties for color and spiciness; spearmint or peppermint for a deep green carpet and their versatility in the kitchen; or Coriscan mint for its tiny leaves that make a delicate matt in between stepping stones, be sure to carefully read the tags at the nursery as a starting point, but let your taste buds be your guide!
Mint and Yogurt Refresher
makes 4 6oz. servings
1 whole english cucumber
24 oz plain yogurt (regular or fat free)*
1 tsp. green onion, chopped
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. fresh mint (either Ginger Mint or Spearmint), finely chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 dash pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. lemon peel, grated
4 tsp. lemon juice
fresh mint sprigs
Put all of the ingredients in a blender. Puree until smooth. Adjust salt, and refrigerate until well chilled. Garnish with the fresh mint sprigs, and sprinkle with freshly chopped nastursium leaves for a dazzling presentation. Serve either as a first course for a light summer meal, or as an afternoon refresher served in frosted glasses.
* use the regular, whole fat yogurt to give a creamier texture
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.