Bright and happy, mint is more than just a pretty little sprig garnishing your dessert plate. Few flavors are more refreshing than the clean, cool taste of mint.
Extremely versatile, it’s one of the most useful medicinal and culinary herbs. It’s fabulous in both sweet and savory dishes and in the Mediterranean, it’s a treasured companion to lamb and makes a regular appearances in salads. Even fruit salad benefits by adding fresh mint leaves.
Though there are about twenty-five different varieties, spearmint is often the preferred choice for cooking. Spearmint has bright green fuzzy leaves, as opposed to the darker stemmed, rounded leaves of peppermint. They can be used interchangeably, but if you have access to both, you can experiment with them a little since their flavor profiles differ slightly. Peppermint has a bright, peppery taste and more intense menthol aroma to it, whereas spearmint tends to be cooler, subtler delicate and sweet.
Mints origins are immortalized in a Greek myth about the beautiful water nymph, Minthe who was transformed into a plant. There are a number of variations to this myth, with the version I know being that the jealous goddess Persephone took revenge on her husband’s mistress and seeking out to savagely kick and trample her to death, Minthe’s lover, Hades, ruler of the Greek Underworld, transformed her into the herb, mint, which he so ever treasured. And with each tread of Persephone’s foot, this herb, “mint” released a divine scent countering every kick with a delightful aroma.
There are many health benefits associated with mint. Some common ones are:
- Inhale peppermint essential oil to relieve congestion and open your airways to help breathe easier. This also helps curb appetite by triggering a sense of fullness.
- Upset tummy or nausea? Then make a soothing and delicious mint tea. Put a couple stems of mint leaves in a cup and pour in boiling water. Steep for a few minutes; remove the stems and sweeten with a little honey.
- Mint is a great palate cleanser and breath freshener and because it’s a proven anti-bacterial ingredient it also helps combat cavity causing bacteria. Dried, powdered mint was even used by the Romans to whiten teeth.
- Effective muscle relaxant. Mix together 1 cup of sea salt, 1/3 cup olive oil and 6-9 drops peppermint essential oil and massage into the sore muscle area for 5 to 10 minutes before rinsing off.
- There are also some unexpected benefits—the minty aroma wards off nasty pests such as rats, mice, and repels insects, such as ants and mosquitoes. If you are looking for an environmentally friendly insect repellent, just rub mint leaves on your hands, or create your own mint infused oil or spray. It’s also an effective relief for wasp stings! Mint can even be used as a natural carpet cleaner—just mix dried, crushed mint together with baking soda, sprinkle on the stained area, allow to absorb for an hour or more, then vacuum up. Voila!
Many of us are familiar with mint’s classic pairings—it’s fantastic in a sauce with lamb, and pairs perfectly with new potatoes and naturally fresh peas too. Mint is a popular choice for a number of ethnic dishes. Think Indian chutneys, Greek tzatziki, Israeli couscous, oodles of Vietnamese dishes, and Moroccan mint tea. And of course, in the dessert realm, mint and chocolate are longtime friends! So go beyond the classics, get creative and add mint to the water used to steam vegetables, mix it together with olive oil for a marinade, toss it together with a salad or tomatoes instead of basil, and add pepp up soup or rice as a refreshing garnish.
Growing mint is easy. It’s one of those herbs that goes wild—its vigorous and expansive and left to its own devices, it will spread quickly and become a nuisance. Some even call it a weed. So consider planting in containers or a pot before introducing it to your garden this spring. It’s also very hardy and will come back stronger every year.
Alternatively, do as urban dwellers do—bring home a small pot from the farmers market and grow it on your kitchen windowsill.
Store in a damp paper towel and place in a loosely closed plastic bag or in the crisper of your refrigerator. It’ll stay fresh several days this way.
To dry mint, gently strip the leaves from the woody stalks and leave in the sunshine to dry. Alternatively, hang the intact bunches upside down, and then remove the dried leaves (careful to keep them as whole as possible) before storing them in an airtight container. Store in a cool, dry place, such as a pantry or cupboard.