It has been a long, difficult winter here in Brooklyn, but in my community garden and backyard, the mint is finally poking its leaves through the soil - a sure sign of spring and summer. We've got chocolate mint, peppermint and spearmint (and a mint relative - lemon balm) growing in our community mint patch, and every year we have to aggressively ensure that the mint, notorious for spreading in gardens, doesn't take over our raised beds. I live for the day I can finally harvest fresh mint to use in teas, as a fun alternative to basil in tomato salads, to toss into lamb burgers, to churn into ice cream and to garnish fancy desserts. Mint is one of the most diverse herbs in the kitchen as well as one of my favorites.
A Brief History
There are many, many different cultivars of mint, most of which are probably native to Asia and Europe. The plant has spread across the globe, and is grown for its versatility in cooking, medicine and in cosmetics. Mint was mentioned in the Bible - from the book of Luke: "But woe to you Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and every herb and you pass over justice and over the love of God" - and was used as a medicinal remedy in Ancient Egypt. The plant was also cultivated in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used both in cooking and in funerary and mystical rites. In ancient Greece, mint was used to flavor the fermented barley-and-water drink called kykeon, a variation of which (that included psychoactive ergot) was used in religious rituals. The plant is used around the world to settle digestive difficulties and to soothe coughs. Mint was probably introduced to England via the Romans, and the first Pilgrims may have brought mint with them to North America from Great Britain.
- In Greek myth, Menthe was a water nymph that tried to seduce Hades, King of the Dead. His wife, Persephone, intervened just in the nick of time and turned her into a mint plant.
- Both fresh and dried mint featured prominently in recipes in Apicius, an ancient Roman cookbook. My favorite is for boiled ostrich with mint, cumin, leeks, dates and honey.
- The Ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, a medical text that dates from around 1550 BCE, mentions mint several times as a remedy for various ailments, including abdominal troubles.
- According to the Mint Industry Research Council, 45 percent of the peppermint and spearmint oil produced in the US is used for flavoring chewing gum.
Mint is a perennial that is grown from rootstock or via its spreading, underground runners. The plant is in the Lamiacae (mint) family, which includes just about every herb used in the kitchen, including thyme, basil, sage, oregano, lavender, hyssop and perilla (aka, shiso). The genus Mentha (mint) is grown around the world, and includes hundreds of different varieties, with different cultivars adapted to different climates. In the garden, square stems are a dead giveaway of a plants' inclusion in the mint genus. In the US, mint is commercially grown primarily in Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, Wisconsin and Michigan. Globally, China and India are top mint producers.
The major mint varieties used in cooking and cosmetics are:
- Mentha arvenisis (Japanese mint, field mint, corn mint): thrives in tropical and Mediterranean climates, used fresh or grown for its essential oil.
- Mentha piperita (peppermint): a hybrid of three other mint species, now grown extensively for its essential oil and for its use (fresh and dried) in cooking.
- Mentha spicata (spearmint): a hybrid of two other mint species, grown also for its essential oil and its usefulness in cooking.
Pennyroyal, used medicinally (more on this below) is also in the Mentha genus. Here is a list of the various mint varieties, with pictures, and here is a nice list of the Dos and Don'ts of growing mint in your home garden.
Mint begins to appear in the late spring and early summer, and is available fresh through the early fall.
According to Mars food (the parent company of Wrigley gum, a huge consumer of mint oil), the processing of mint into oil is greenhouse gas-intensive. (The oil is extracted using steam, which, of course, must be heated.) In addition, the production of mint oil creates the need for heavy use of insecticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizer, because any variation in the growing mint plants and harvested mint (including adulteration with weeds) can affect the quality of the mint oil produced, which in turn affects the price of the oil for mint farmers. For use at home, it is easy to grow your own (pesticide-free) mint in pots, or check with your local herb farmer to find out about his or her mint-growing practices. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below.)
Characteristics and What to Look For
Most of the mint you will find in the market (for culinary use) is either peppermint or spearmint. Peppermint generally has purple-ish stems and pointed, dark green leaves. Spearmint usually has lighter green leaves, with toothed (spiky) edges and a more ruffled appearance. Fresh spearmint is used more frequently in cooking, because it does not contain menthol, the oil that produces that distinctive "cooling" sensation (peppermint contains menthol in abundance). A beautiful spearmint variety (one of my favorites) is variegated pineapple mint, which has small, cream-and-green leaves and a mild flavor.
In general, look for fresh mint with perky leaves and stems, with no black or dried spots or wilted parts. Fresh mint should be very aromatic.
Nutrition and effects on the body
A couple of tablespoons of fresh mint won't give you a whole lot of nutritional benefit - but it is fairly high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, manganese, folate and even calcium. Medicinally, mint has been used for millennia for various ailments, including stomachaches and respiratory issues. Modern medicine is beginning to catch up with ancient mint-y remedies for ailments like irritable bowel syndrome, skin irritation, headaches, and colds and flu. Pennyroyal, a member of the Mentha genus, has been used to make tea to help with menstrual ailments and to terminate pregnancies. This article from Mother Earth News recommends that you "never use pennyroyal essential oil for anything, not ever" because it has been linked to several recent human (and dog) deaths.
What to Do with It
Fresh mint is as diverse in the kitchen as any herb - especially if you stick to using spearmint (as opposed to peppermint) in your recipes. Dried mint is frequently used in Middle Eastern recipes to flavor vegetables and meats. Mint oil is used in lots and lots of yummy sweets, including peppermints and chocolates (and gum. And toothpaste). And don't forget cocktails (we could never forget cocktails): mint plays a central role in several iconic cocktails, from the mojito to the mint julep.
Fresh mint leaves are generally not cooked, but left raw in a dish to brighten up and enhance the flavors of fruits, vegetables, meats and grains. Fresh mint pairs amazingly well with the spring veggies and fruit that are just poised to hit the market - think peas, lettuce, strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, favas and artichokes. It's also delicious with summer produce - try substituting mint for basil in your next Caprese salad, chop up fresh mint and toss in with grilled or sautéed green beans or make a raw zucchini or pattypan "carpaccio" topped with a chiffonade of mint leaves, a drizzle of good olive oil and some crunchy sea salt. One of my family's favorite "salads" is of fresh blackberries mixed with lemon zest, vanilla sugar and chopped mint leaves (maybe with a splash of rum if it's grown-ups only), to eat on its own or as a topping for vanilla ice cream. I also love a bit of fresh mint tossed into cold grain salads - perfect for picnics and barbecues - like farro (especially with feta cheese) and quinoa. Fresh (or dried) mint makes an excellent addition to meatballs and lamb burgers, to add a bit of Middle Eastern flair (mint is used extensively in many Middle Eastern cuisines).
In desserts, fresh mint and mint oil (in candies like peppermints and chocolates) stars. I like to make the clothing designer Isaac Mizrahi's fresh Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream with chocolate mint (a mint cultivar that tastes like...chocolate mint) and peppermint from my garden in the summertime. Other classic mint-based deserts include grasshopper pie (made with crème de menthe - more on that below) and all sorts of frozen mint desserts (I've got my eye on this mint granita for the summer). And, of course, we can't forget chewing gum - the food-like substance that accounts for most of the world's production of mint (for its essential oils).
The herb is also incredibly delicious in cocktails and other beverages. My hand-down favorite is the mojito, made with rum, mint, lime and sugar (here's a history of the beverage). This former Kentucky girl also has a soft spot for mint juleps, traditionally served on Kentucky Derby Day, the first weekend in May. (In a silver cup, naturally.) Here's the history and a recipe for the drink. Crème de menthe, a mint-flavored liqueur, has, of late, been regulated to an ingredient in grasshopper pies and crème de menthe brownies, but was once much more popular (and is a main ingredient in cocktails like the grasshopper and the stinger). Here's a recipe for DIY crème de menthe! On the non-alcoholic tip - refreshing mint tea is a must in the summer; make by steeping fresh or dried mint leaves in water and chilling over ice. Mint tea is the iconic drink of Morocco - here is a bit of history.
I usually keep bunches of fresh mint in a jar full of water right on my countertop. Stored this way, mint will keep for a least a week (and my end up sprouting roots if you keep the water clean). You can also roll fresh mint bunches in a damp paper towel and stick them in a zip-top bag in your crisper drawer.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Mint dries beautifully - hang bunches upside down in a cool, dry, place until the leaves are dry, then crumble and store in an airtight container. They will keep for at least a year (longer than that and the oils in the leaves start to fade). Use in soups, to flavor meatballs (especially lamb) and to make mint tea. You can also freeze mint - here's a nice little tutorial. You could also try adding some mint leaves in with your next batch of veggie pickles - like this pickled carrot with mint or these mint pickled strawberries. Mint jelly is a traditional accompaniment for lamb - if you happen to have an abundance of mint in your garden, make your own!
Shaved Asparagus Salad with Fresh Mint, Feta and Almonds
Raw asparagus is unexpected and yummy (and so easy to prep). I use an inexpensive Japanese mandoline to shave the spears, but you could use a super sharp knife instead (the key is to get very thin ribbons of asparagus). Feel free to substitute other types of cheese - Parmesan, goat cheese or ricotta would be equally delicious (or omit entirely to make vegan). If you plan on waiting a bit before you serve the salad, shave the asparagus into a bowl of ice water to keep crisp, making sure you drain and pat dry thoroughly before serving. Here's a good tutorial on how to chiffonade mint - do this right before you serve the salad.
1 bunch fresh asparagus, washed and trimmed
Extra virgin olive oil
Juice from 1⁄2 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ounce feta cheese, crumbled
1⁄3 cup whole almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1⁄3 cup fresh mint leaves (packed), cut into chiffonade
- Using a very sharp knife or mandoline, shave the asparagus lengthwise into very thin strips. Pile the strips onto a large serving platter.
- Drizzle the shaved asparagus with a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil and the lemon juice. Sprinkle the salt and pepper over, and toss gently. (Taste and correct for salt, if needed, keeping in mind that the feta is salty.)
- Top with the feta, chopped almonds and mint.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)