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Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Mint

by Sandra Bowens

Apparently the hardest part about growing mint is deciding which variety to plant. If you want to brew tea, you might choose Swiss mint, apple mint or variegated peppermint. Thinking more about cooking? Spearmint is the standard but what about Vietnamese mint for Asian cooking or English mint for your lamb? Don't forget to consider Corsican mint for its carpet-like quality as a ground cover in your garden or banana mint just for fun.


Once you have your mint planted, look out, it grows like crazy. In full or partial sun, this hardy perennial is invasive.  Gardeners in the know plant mint in containers so that it is easier to control.


A somewhat tall plant, mint or Mentha in Latin, produces an intense aroma and intricate pale purple flowers. Although indigenous to Europe and the Mediterranean, varieties of mint are cultivated throughout the world today.


Legend has it that during a jealous rage, Pluto's wife Proserpina transformed the lovely nymph Minthes into an ordinary plant. Pluto could not undo the spell but he was able to give the homely plant its delightful fragrance.


Spearmint has long been used for medicinal purposes. Hippocrates wrote of it and in medieval times it was commonly used to whiten teeth and soothe bites of all kinds. Peppermint, although it was not even recognized until the early 1700's, provides the most widely used essential oil in medicines. Mint is said to stimulate stomach bile thereby aiding in digestion. That after dinner mint is good for more than just a sweet treat.


Japanese mint is the source of menthol, a major essential oil used in flavoring prepared foods. Similar to peppermint yet of lesser quality, Japanese mint oil is sometimes used to stretch the more expensive essential oil of true peppermint.


Spearmint and peppermint are the most common mint varieties used in cooking. They offer a sweetly clean, refreshing taste to foods. Peppermint is more often used for candies and teas while spearmint complements savory dishes like lamb, peas and other vegetables as well as fruits and chocolate.


Mint is common to Middle Eastern cooking. Try snipping the leaves into fruit salads and rice pilaf or adding to a marinade for chicken. The classic mint julep is a refreshing bourbon cocktail but you might consider adding mint to punches, iced tea and milk shakes too. The fresh leaves make an attractive garnish to just about any dish.


If mint does not run rampant in your garden, you can find the dried leaves available commercially. If you order through the mail, take heed of the advice in the Penzeys Spice Catalog, "...dried mint is very light--four ounces equals half a gallon."


If you do have more mint than you can ingest, use it as a room freshener. In India they hang fresh bunches of mint in doorways and open windows allowing the breeze to carry the scent throughout the house. The aroma of mint is said to symbolize hospitality so this would be especially nice if you were expecting company.


Yet another perk: the hospitality does not extend to rats and mice, rodents are repelled by mint!


Mint Pesto

This delightful dessert pesto is terrific with chocolate. Try it as a filling for sandwich cookies or mix some into chocolate sauce for ice cream or cake. The mint brownies below have won rave reviews in the test kitchen and beyond.


1/2 cup macadamia nuts

2 cups packed fresh mint leaves

1/3 cup honey

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract


In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, briefly chop the nuts before adding the remaining ingredients.  Puree until reduced to a paste.  If not using right away, transfer to a glass container, lay plastic wrap over the top so it is touching thus keeping air from penetrating the pesto.  Store in refrigerator for up to a month.


Makes about 1 cup



Mint Pesto Brownies

To swirl the pesto into the brownies, try placing the pesto into a small plastic bag with a corner snipped off.  Pipe lines of pesto going one direction and then run a knife through the lines in the opposite direction to swirl.


6 Tablespoons butter

2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup flour

1/4 cup mint pesto


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Light butter or coat with non-stick spray the bottom only of an 8-inch square baking pan.


Melt the butter and chocolate together until smooth.  Stir in sugar.  Beat in eggs and vanilla then lightly stir in the flour.  Turn batter into prepared pan. Swirl the mint pesto into the batter by drizzling it on in parallel lines and then running a knife through the lines from the other direction.


Bake for about 25 minutes or until brownies begin to pull away from the sides of the pan.  For best results, allow to cool completely before cutting.



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