Nature's refresher

MInt delivers an icy burst of flavor and potent fragrance, too

May 28, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,[Sun reporter]

Legend has it that a beguiling nymph seduced Pluto, greatly vexing the god's wife, Proserpina, who got revenge by turning her competition, Minthe, into a lowly plant.

But nymphs, it seems, make bewitching greenery. It's unclear if Proserpina took that into account.

Ian Hemphill, author of The Spice and Herb Bible, describes mint almost romantically:

"I could not help thinking how enticing Minthe must have been while I walked through a field of mint near the small town of Nizip in southeastern Turkey," he wrote. "The aroma of fresh mint wafting up through the warm summer air was enough to make one swoon."

And anyone with some Maryland dirt, sunshine and a little water can experience mint's charms in their backyard.

"Mint is the easiest thing in the world to grow," says Miriam Avins, a Baltimore home gardener who acknowledges she's not exactly a plant whisperer. "It just survives. You kill it in the summer with lack of water and in the fall it comes right back."

Its hardiness is matched only by its flexibility -- a compelling flavoring, a potent fragrance, a digestive aid ... even an academic's secret weapon.

According to The Penguin Companion to Food, the ancient Romans, who pickled mint in vinegar, believed that students should wear mint garlands on their heads "to exhilarate their minds."

The storied herbalist John Gerard wrote that "the smell of mint does stir up the minde and the taste to a greedy desire of meat."

Gerard also wrote, "Garden Mint taken in meat or drinke warmeth and strengtheneth the stomacke ... and causeth good digestion."

Starting with spearmint, a subtle snowflake on the tongue, all the way to the bracing, icy blast that is peppermint, the main mint family and its vast extended family are nature's refreshers. In warm weather, they're the appetite's equivalent to a jump in the pool.

Come spring, Galen Sampson, the chef of Hampden's Dogwood restaurant, is looking for "bright, vibrant, happy flavors."

With mint, he's found one.

He chops copious amounts of it for tabouli. It's what gives the vinaigrette "pop" in his strawberry and asparagus salad. Once the peas come in, he serves a chilled soup with mint and creme fraiche.

"It sort of uplifts a dish," Sampson says. "It sort of wakes up your palate, I think, so you can taste more dimensions in the food."

All year-round he brings mint together with one of its most traditional companions -- lamb. The meat cozies up on the plate with a mint gremolata.

From week to week, Dogwood customers will find Sampson working with various mints. He'll wander local farmers' markets, tearing leaves, sniffing and nibbling, bringing back whatever's got the most "exciting" flavor.

According to The Penguin Companion to Food, there are about two dozen species of mint and hundreds of varieties. Except for peppermint, most of them can be used interchangeably.

There's pineapple mint, orange mint, chocolate mint, ginger mint -- after a while, it starts to sound like a candy store.

But spearmint is the go-to variety, the one most people think of when they think of mint.

At Willow Oak Flower and Herb Farm in Severn, herbalist Maria Price-Nowakowski grows a number of mint varieties. From their homes in assorted beds across the leafy farm, Price-Nowakowski pulls apple mint, with round, fuzzy leaves that smell faintly like yellow apples; Kentucky colonel mint, the type real Southerners prefer for mint juleps; and peppermint -- if its sharp, menthol-like perfume didn't give it away, the smooth leaves and dark stem might.

"On a hot summer day, if you walk by a bed of mint," she says, "if you just barely brush by it, you can smell the essential oils."

She makes mint tea, freezes it into pops specked with chocolate chips, ferments it into wine. At the farm, she sells a bag of dried mint packaged with a recipe for peppermint butter cookies.

Price-Nowakowski appreciates that a steamy cup of mint tea can relieve stomachaches and that fresh breath is as easy as ripping a leaf from a plant and chewing it.

Because mint grows, as the saying goes, like a weed, it's perfect for beginner gardeners but also something of a pest. It will hop from one bed to another and come back the next season whether you want it to or not.

To keep mint from getting out of hand, Price-Nowakowski recommends planting it in containers and keeping the varieties separate -- unless you want them to lose their distinct qualities and blend.

For growers interested in drying mint, Price-Nowakowski says it's best to harvest as the plant flowers, when it's most flavorful.

Avins is an enthusiastic amateur grower who persuaded the city to help her turn a decrepit lot next to her Waverly home into an organic community garden. She's got mint creeping up in her backyard herb garden and growing in the neighborhood plot.

With fresh herbs going for as much as $4 for a puny bag at the supermarket, Avins loves that she can just step outside and get it for free.

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