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I Spice: Mint

Mint makes an Iolla's Itch. (Melissa Punch)

Mint is my hero, because it ended my killing spree. You see, ever since I was a child, I was known for a really bad case of black thumb. I could not grow plants of any kind. Even worse, they seemed to die under my supervision.

Then one day, I noticed mint in a friend’s yard and tried growing some myself. That was 10 years ago. Not only is my original mint plant still around, but most other things I put in the earth seem to grow as well!

Recipe Included

And it is such a huge pleasure to have several pots of mint on my deck, so I can use this absolutely magnificent herb whenever I need it. I love it for its fresh flavor, and that lingering aroma reminds me of all things delicious. Blue Ridge chef Barton Seaver (controversially tapped by Esquire magazine as Chef of the Year) agrees, adding that he loves mint because much like lemon juice and salt, mint accentuates the natural flavors of a dish. I loved the words he used about mint’s aroma: It provide a sense of levity to foods.

On to buying this herb: If you don’t grow it, you should. (I can!) If you do buy it, do so by the bunch and avoid the herbs that come in plastic boxes. Use it as needed and store it in the fridge, wrapped in a moistened paper towel.

In order to get the maximum flavor from mint in hot foods it needs to be used at the very last minute, chef Barton told me. And yes, all you mojito fans, I asked author A.J. Rathbun for his secrets on using mint in drinks. “I think to maximize the minty-ness you must get the essential oils in the leaves flowing -- those precious oils are what bring the aroma and the taste out to play. With this in mind, muddling the mint up (bruising it while rubbing it around the inside of a glass) is the way to go. Another option is to hold a leaf flat in your hand and then give it a smack with the other hand, sort of like you’re clapping with the mint in the middle. This is a good way to cause the fragrance to burst out, which is especially helpful when using a single beautiful leaf as a garnish, because you want it to still look nice.”

There are many different kinds of mint but I find myself turning to the classic mint leaves most days. Chef Barton feels likewise, noting that while many varieties offer interesting characteristics, they also exhibit a lot of flaws in the balance of flavors. For instance, apple mint is highly fragrant but oftentimes very bitter on the palate. It also has a fuzzy texture that is a little offputting. Same with chocolate mint, pineapple mint, orange mint; they are all interesting but not very consistent.

Author Rathbun also loves classic mint flavors, adding that he tends toward using peppermint because he finds the taste a little brighter on the tongue than spearmint. But both can be fun to use for cocktails.

Mint is amazingly versatile. “Try using mint with mushrooms next time you cook them," the chef says. "In Italy, you can't buy mushrooms without being handed a few sprigs of nepitella, which is a wild field mint that is a cross between mint and oregano in flavor." He likes mint in the fall, added to roasted vegetables straight from the oven; he tosses the hot vegetables in a bowl with chopped mint, parsley and shallot. The mixture adds a great flavor spike.

There are a lot of classic ways to use this familiar herb but some unusual yet lovely suggestions came from my online social network: food writer Dana McCauley uses it in place of cilantro for all her Indian and Pacific Rim cooking, adding that it is a better match than parsley. Food blogger Elise Bauer sent me an e-mail recalling her favorite childhood soup, “Sopa de albóndigas is a traditional Mexican soup made with meatballs (albóndigas) and vegetables such as green beans, peas and summer squash. What gives albóndigas soup its unique flavor is the mint, or ’yerba buena’‘ that is added to the meatballs and sometimes to the soup itself. The meatballs are dropped raw into simmering broth and they cook along with the vegetables, infusing the soup with the flavor of the meat and mint. The soup is topped off with fresh chopped cilantro. It's home-cooking Mexican food, not fancy restaurant food. We had it at least once a month when I was growing up> My mother can whip up a batch in less than an hour, and we fight over leftovers.”

Chef Barton uses it in his Mussels With Greek Yogurt, Capers and Mint and Grilled Mahi-Mahi With Nectarines and Watercress.

The chef and I agree on two things about mint: It's far more than a garnish, and cooks should use a lot of it. As he says, “I am not trying to be too much of a hippie about this, but if there is too much mint in your garden, then put it on everything. The way the plant grows tells you that it should be used in copious quantities.”

-- Monica Bhide

Iolla's Itch
1 serving

Adapted from "Dark Spirits: 200 Classy Concoctions Starring Bourbon, Brandy, Scotch, Whiskey, Rum and More”, by A.J. Rathbun (Harvard Common Press, 2009).

4 mint leaves
Ice cubes
2 ounces rye whiskey
3/4 ounce apricot liqueur
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth

Rub 3 of the mint leaves all around the inside of a cocktail (martini) glass; do this carefully but firmly, as you want to expel the oils in the leaves. Discard them.

Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice cubes. Add the rye, apricot liqueur and sweet vermouth. Shake forcefully (as if you were about to conquer Mesopotamia).

Strain into the minty cocktail glass; garnish with the remaining mint leaf.
Per serving: 219 calories, 0 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  October 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, mint, recipes  
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