Did you ever get shushed with a starlight mint?
Or was it Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum, Certs or Tic-Tacs that your grandmother kept in her handbag? If she was susceptible to heartburn or to a cough, perhaps she resorted to Tums, Rolaids or Halls Menthol-Lyptus when bribing you to sit still and hush.
In any case, the theme is mint.
Mint is big business. Pardon the pun, but a mint has been made from mint. In addition to chewing gum, breath mints, candy, cough drops and antacids, the essential oil derived from the flowering family of plants known as Lamiaceau also graces toothpastes, mouthwashes, dental floss, soaps, cosmetics, liqueurs, cigarettes and various pharmaceuticals.
And it is no wonder, as mint is seriously beneficial. Besides quelling restless children and Granny’s sour breath, mint is said to alleviate nausea, indigestion, hiccups, heartburn, headaches, flatulence, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and bronchitis, et al. Purportedly, the smell of mint enhances memory and repels varmints, and with the right incantation it can bring health, wealth and happiness!
Therapeutic properties, commercial concoctions and thoughts of the “fresh-maker” or of “getting the sensation”, or of “doubling your pleasure” aside, think instead of the vibrant green plant that grows like a weed and perfumes a garden before menthol can be crystallized from its essential oil. Envision the perennial with lance-shaped, jagged leaves and conical pink-to-lilac flowers, that thrives in sun or shade before essential oils can be distilled from its dried leaves.
Rather, banish thoughts of the intense chemical menthol-action in favor of subtlety, remembering that mint is, after all, a culinary herb. Consider Escoffier’s Sauce Paloise for lamb or salmon, English Peas with Mint, Greek Dolmathakia, Moroccan Mint Tea, Lebanese Tabbouleh, Vietnamese Phở and Mint Juleps – mint’s appeal is universal and its applications diverse.
Activating trigeminal nerve endings in the taste buds and the nose, mint sends simultaneous and multi-layered aromatic and gustatory messages that result in a fleeting rush of sharp, peppery heat in the back of the throat and nose, quickly morphing into its characteristic coolness, then fading at last into notes of herb, chlorophyll, juniper and evergreen.
The equation of herb + menthol + camphor + wood makes mint a fine addition to grilled summer fare. Well appreciated is mint’s affinity for lamb, but do not neglect the other critters you’ll want to throw on the fire. Try Mojito-Marinated Chicken which takes its flavor ques from the lime, mint & rum cocktail, or the Rick-Bayless-inspired Achiote Grilled Turkey Breast with tomatoes, chiles and mint, or a tweaked version of Argentina’s favorite condiment in Char-Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Three-Herb Chimichurri.
Don’t ignore your sea creatures either, whose brine and kelp can be very friendly with land-loving mint. Grilled Salmon with Basil and Mint, Sweet and Spicy Shrimp with Mint Dipping Sauce or Pan-Seared Scallops with Minted Tomato Coulis make for some luscious and herbaceous eating.
While mint greets meat and seafood with open arms, its impressionistic coolness will make your summer produce swoon: Chopped Arabic Salad, where purslane, parsley and mint adorn tomatoes and cucumbers, Cold Cantaloupe and Mint Soup, a chilly tonic suitable as a first course or dessert, Zucchini Sautéed with Mint, Marinated Eggplant with Mint and Goat Cheese, or Chioggia Beets with Raspberry Mint Vinaigrette.
If you imbibe, you well know the charm of a Mint Julep, or the refreshment of a Mojito. My favorite minty cocktail, however, is the Richmond Gimlet, a synthesis of gin, mint and lime. Made with spearmint it is more herbal, and with peppermint, more candy-like. Premium gin produces a nuanced cocktail, though Old Knotty Head does fine too and highlights the mint.
(Recipes for the dishes mentioned here are available via the link or at the end of this article.)
If your appetite is now piqued and you are sans a pot or a patch of mint, then get busy. Your best bet is to find a neighbor with an abundant swath of it. More than likely they have loads to share for both recipes and to supply you with a starter cutting. Mint is fast-growing but also invasive, so consider your growing spot carefully. (When your mint starts to take over, unload your angst by ripping out some of it – a physical release with aromatic benefits.) Find further information on growing and drying mint at How to Garden Advice.
You may also purchase mint plants at farmer’s markets, grocery stores, big-box plant departments and nurseries. At press time, the following locations had mint plants in stock:
Gardener’s Gourmet (Saturday at the Waverly Farmer’s Market, Sunday at the Baltimore Market under Jones Falls)
Giant (6340 York Road, Cedarcroft)
Green Field’s (5424 Falls Road, Roland Park/Mt. Washington)
Home Depot (9050 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia)
Trader Joe’s (1809 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville)
Once you’ve planted and reaped your mint, mixed a minty libation, and grilled and devoured some splendid and succulent mint-laden dishes, you’ll want a simple mint tisane to aid your digestion, and perhaps too, a homemade minty foot scrub to ease your aching dawgs. Then, you’ll brush your teeth with minty toothpaste and rinse your mouth with minty mouthwash, slide into bed, and hopefully you will not need to get back up for a minty antacid.
Seared Scallops with Minted Tomato Coulis
16 Scallops, prepared per Alton Brown
Minted Tomato Coulis
1 pound cherry, grape or yellow pear tomatoes (~ 2½ cups)
2 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
½ tsp red chile flakes
¼ cup fresh spearmint leaves, chopped finely
In a blender puree tomatoes, vinegar, lemon juice, oilve oil, sugar, salt, and pepper flakes until smooth. Pour tomato mixture through a sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids. Stir in chopped mint. Coulis keeps, covered and chilled, 2 days.
Serve Seared Scallops and Tomato Coulis with Sauteed Zucchini with Mint and Herbed Pearl Couscous and garnished with Roasted Tomatoes.
Sauteed Zucchini with Mint
3 medium zucchini, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped spearmint leaves
salt and pepper to taste
Warm olive oil in a shallow pan over medium heat. Add zucchini and sauté for about 4 minutes until softened but still holding their shape. Turn off heat and stir in mint, salt and pepper.
Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
1 pint cherry, grape, or yellow pear tomatoes (12 ounces, sliced in half lengthwise
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Toss tomatoes with oil, salt, pepper and sugar on a small baking pan and roast in middle of oven for 12-15, tossing once, until skins just begin to split and/or edges caramelize.
Herbed Pearl Couscous
1 cup pearl couscous (also called Israeli couscous)
1¼ cups water
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons chopped mint-dishes
2 tablespoons chopped basil
2 teaspoons lemon zest
freshly ground black pepper
Bring water to a boil. Add couscous, salt, and olive oil. Cover pan and simmer for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in butter until melted, then add mint, basil, lemon zest, and black pepper, stirring. Can be served hot or at room temperature.