Jude's culinary journey

A fragrant weed

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 4/27/22

Mint is not a weed, but it can be invasive and it spreads with the speed of light, often taking up more space in the garden than one would like. And it’s difficult to pull out, as its roots are …

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Jude's culinary journey

A fragrant weed

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Mint is not a weed, but it can be invasive and it spreads with the speed of light, often taking up more space in the garden than one would like. And it’s difficult to pull out, as its roots are strong, wiry and lengthy.

I planted my mint many moons ago and it returns yearly, in spring, right after the first chive shoots emerge. Soon it is encroaching on anything planted anywhere near it. But I don’t mind that.

I have a vivid memory from childhood. Whenever my family was strolling together and we happened to pass a patch of wild mint, my mom would pinch off a small cluster between her thumb and pointer fingers, inhale the aromatic leaves deeply, then pop them in her mouth. She would swallow contently. Naturally, being curious I gave it a try. It was an alien taste to my young palate. I hated it. How could Mom, who was so smart in other ways, think these leaves tasty?

It took me until adulthood (long after my mother had passed away) to find a passion for this herb. It has been around for centuries. I read somewhere that the ancient Hebrews scattered mint leaves on the synagogue floor so each footstep would produce a fragrant whiff. A lovely image.

The name “mint” comes from a nymph named Minthe or Menthe, a character in Greek mythology who, according to legend, was Pluto’s girlfriend. Pluto’s wife, Persephone, became jealous and turned Minthe into a ground-clinging plant. Although Pluto was unable to change Minthe back into a nymph, he gave her the ability to sweeten the air when her leaves and stems are crushed.

Mom would be surprised to find that there are now a variety of cultivated mints: chocolate, pineapple, spearmint, ginger and apple, to name a few. I particularly love the fragrance of pineapple mint, but truth be told, I currently grow only good old-fashioned peppermint for its clean, astringent flavor. The small flowers it eventually produces are lavender in color and form in a long, slender spike.

Mint has been used throughout history to treat stomach and digestion problems. As a child, I was given a hot cup of peppermint tea if I had a stomachache or felt nauseated. Its antibacterial and antifungal properties are reasons it has long been effective in toothpaste and as an aid to freshen breath—think mouthwash. The dried leaves were used to whiten teeth and as a pest repellent. Mint is used in medicine, in beauty products and as a food additive. In restaurants, it often shows up in a little cluster atop desserts, particularly those made with chocolate.

As for using mint in food, it is more often than not a garnish. Yet that doesn’t mean its impact is any less than any other ingredient. I make little spiced lamb meatballs drizzled with a pomegranate glaze topped with thinly sliced mint leaves. The latter brightens the deeply savory meatballs and adds a lighter note.

In summer I often make a zucchini carpaccio salad,  which consists of paper-thin rounds of raw zucchini topped with a handful of halved cherry tomatoes and dressed with lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and julienned mint leaves finish off the dish.

This time of year, I love to make a juicy watermelon salad with feta cheese and mint, or cold pea soup with mint. A crunchy cucumber salad with mint and a vinaigrette using white wine or rice vinegar appears on my table a few times a week. I might alternate with a chunky corn salad complemented by diced cucumbers, red bell peppers, scallions, and chopped tomatoes enlivened with mint, or a lemony Lebanese bulgur wheat tabouli salad.

Finally, I like to walk into the garden in the evening and pinch off clusters of fragrant mint leaves in preparation for preparing a couple of mojito cocktails for my sister and me. It is a refreshing drink to sip on a warm summer evening as the sky is darkening and the day is coming to an end. And the mint is a vivid reminder of our mom.

Mojito cocktail for one

Serves 1

I like my mojitos heavy on the mint, but you can adjust the amount to your taste. Muddlers can be ordered on the internet, but if you don’t have one you can substitute a pestle from a mortar and pestle, a thick wooden dowel, the end of a French rolling pin, or even a rounded wooden spoon.

  • 5 to 6  small sprigs of mint, which should be a couple dozen mint leaves
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 ounces (1/4 cup)—or a little more—white or dark rum, or a combo of each
  • 3 tablespoons club soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon simple syrup (see recipe below) or you can use superfine sugar

Place the mint leaves in the bottom of a rocks/highball glass. Add the lime juice. Gently but firmly, press the mint leaves to the bottom of the glass using a muddler or substitute. Mash the mint leaves until wilted and they have released their scent. Add the rum, club soda and simple syrup. Stir to combine. Add a couple of ice cubes and serve.  

Simple syrup

Makes 1 cup

  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water

Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir to make sure the sugar has melted, then turn off the heat and let cool. Pour into a jar or bottle with a stopper and refrigerate indefinitely.

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