Mint is one tough herb. Late in April I start checking the ground to see if mint had made it through another winter. It rarely disappoints me. No matter how fierce Maryland winters are -- and this past one has been a doozy -- mint bounces back.
I hunt for mint around this time of year for a very important reason: the mint julep, the official elixir of the Kentucky Derby. Yesterday was the first Saturday in May -- Kentucky Derby day. As the horses went to the starting gate in Louisville's Churchill Downs racetrack, I was sipping a mint julep in Maryland.
I do not use the traditional Maryland julep recipe, which calls for Maryland rye, a whiskey made from rye grain. This is a virtually extinct whiskey. Instead, I use bourbon whiskey made from corn mash. I start with Maryland-grown mint, six to eight leaves in the bottom of a julep cup, muddled with 2 tablespoons each of club soda and powdered sugar. I then fill the cup with pulverized ice, then bourbon, and top the drink off with a decorative sprig of local mint.
I call the mint I use for these juleps "backyard mint" and "around the corner mint." I pull the former from my back yard and the latter from a plot of mint that grows around the corner. The same mint grows in both places. Its leaves are dark green and serrated. After looking at mug shots of mints in various garden books, I have concluded that my mint is spearmint.
There's another type of mint growing wild in local back yards. It's likely peppermint. It has smoother edges on its leaves than the mint I tangle with.
In addition to putting mint in juleps, I use them in marinades for grilled fish. A bath of chopped mint leaves, olive oil, soy sauce, garlic and white wine, for example, does wonders for a fillet of shark about to be grilled over a charcoal fire.
A couple of Maryland mint growers, Cinda Sebastian in Uniontown and Ary Van Steamburg in Stevenson, told me the names of other types of local mints. During telephone conversations with me, the farmers rattled off a seemingly endless list of mints: apple mint, ginger mint, pineapple mint, chocolate ... There appear to be about as many types of mints as there are telephone companies.
These farmers also gave me some new ideas on what to do with mint leaves, from tossing tiny pieces of chocolate mint leaves in a salad, a practice Ms. Sebastian recommends, to using leaves as a bug repellent, a tactic Ms. Van Steamburg employs.
The mint was about to pop out of the ground in Uniontown the day I talked with Ms. Sebastian. She and her husband, Scott Williams, grow mint, other herbs, lettuces and baby vegetables on their Carroll County farm. They sell the produce, under the name of Gardener's Gourmet, at various outdoor markets around Baltimore.
According to Ms. Sebastian, mint shows up each year "about the same time as the peonies." Once mint has announced itself, the problem is keeping it under control, she added. "It seems like more of a weed than not. It goes and goes and goes. I have a 200-foot row of mint that got started with just two shovels-full of plants."
Her mint garden includes spearmint, black peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint and apple mint. These plants carry the flavors of their namesakes. Rubbing chocolate mint leaves on sliced cantaloupe gives the fruit a faint chocolate flavor, Ms. Sebastian told me.
Mint-rubbed cantaloupe makes a great fruit salad, she said. She also puts bits of mint leaves in the mesclun -- mix of lettuces -- that she and her husband sell at outdoor markets.
The mint crop at Koinonia Farm, in Baltimore County's Green Spring Valley, is watched over by Ms. Van Steamburg. The 7-acre farm produces a variety of mint, some of which Ms. Van Steamburg sells along with herbs and vegetables -- all organically grown -- to area food stores such as Giant, Sutton Place and Fresh Fields.
Ms. Van Steamburg also uses some of the mint grown at Koinonia in her own kitchen. For example, when she makes iced tea, she adds about a quarter-cup of chocolate mint leaves to a quart of tea and lets the mixture steep for no more than six minutes. She then removes the mint leaves. It makes a refreshing drink, she said.
In the buggy days of summer, Ms. Van Steamburg also brews a lemon mint tea that she uses in the laundry room. She puts 2 cups of the leaves of lemon balm, a member of the mint family, in a pint of boiling water. She lets this strong "tea" sit until it cools. Then she pours the lemon tea into her washing machine, just as a load of clothes is starting the final rinse cycle.
The clothes emerge from the machine with a wonderful aroma, she said. And when she wears these minty clothes, the bugs keep their distance. This is one mint recipe, she said, that has been field-tested.
Pub Date: 5/05/96