Fresh Mint: A Vibrant & Flavorful Herb

Mint comes in hundreds of varieties, many more than Life Savers, Altoids, and toothpaste flavors combined. What they all have in common is menthol, a component of the volatile oil that gives the plant its characteristic smell and flavor. The two kinds usually available to us, both of which grow abundantly in this country, are peppermint and spearmint. Of the two, peppermint has more menthol and consequently more of what we think of as mint flavor.

The plant itself is aggressively perennial. If you plant it in the garden, your challenge will be containing it, not growing it. Fortunately, its hardiness extends to its post-harvest life; mint stays fresh in the refrigerator much longer than other herbs - in mint condition, so to speak.

In the store, fresh mint often comes in bunches as big as a grapefruit, which can be a problem if you only need a lime-size amount. But the herb freezes well - chop it up, add enough water to form a paste, and freeze it in ice cube trays, and you'll have ready-to-go mint for months.

Don't just think of mint as being limited to drinks such as juleps and iced tea. Substituting it for basil, oregano, parsley, or cilantro can give a soup, sauce, salad, or stew a newly minted personality.

  • Zest up your favorite herbal tea by steeping it with a few mint leaves.
  • Dress up tahini paste by adding mint and minced garlic.
  • Add chopped mint to fruit soup or sorbet.
  • Mint and lamb are a classic combination. Try marinating lamb overnight in a mixture of red wine, olive oil, garlic, and mint leaves.
  • Add a few mint leaves to a simple green salad.
  • Add finely chopped mint to cubed pineapple (you can even use canned), and flavor it with coconut milk or rum (or both).
  • Make a simple raita by adding chopped cucumber and chopped mint to plain yogurt. Refrigerate overnight and serve with roasted vegetables or grilled meat or fish.
  • Make an omelet of sautéed mushrooms with mint and a little goat cheese.
  • Try a new take on chicken salad with slivered almonds and chopped mint.

Mint Julep

The julep has long been misunderstood, perhaps because of its association with hoop-skirted plantation ladies fanning themselves or with Yankee tourists seeking southern comfort at the Kentucky Derby (where mass-produced juleps, squirted from giant vats, taste nothing like the real thing). It is not a sweet, syrupy concoction, nor is it in any way lightweight. It's more like iced tea than anything else in texture and color, and its place in the pantheon of summer refreshers is well-deserved. Traditionally, a julep is served in a silver cup - if you can't scare one up, use a highball glass.

3 sprigs of fresh mint
2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon cane sugar
2-1/2 ouncess Bourbon
Crushed or shaved ice

Place the mint, sugar and water in a highball glass or silver cup and use a muddler to crush the mint leaves. Fill the glass with ice and pour in the bourbon. Top up the ice and garnish with fresh mint sprigs and a straw. 

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