Mint: The Companionable Herb

Now in Season Summer 2016 Issue

Mint: The Companionable Herb

By Terese Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

I know what you’re thinking.

Mint. The word conjures the alien-green jelly that comes with roast lamb. The slack little sprigs that garnish cheesecake. Or grasshoppers, those vertical, pastel-pale ice cream drinks plied at supper clubs. Then you remember tabouli. And mojitos...but then you’re stuck. What else is there to do with mint?

As fresh herbs go, mint is woefully under-used in American cooking. I wonder why. Its light pepperiness and savory zip actually complement a spectrum of ingredients and applications, especially in summer, when that spectrum is at its broadest—and when anything that brings a cool breeze to mind is so welcome.

Mint has a backdrop of sweetness that does a yin-yang thing with tangy dishes like sliced tomatoes or flash-sautéed cucumbers. Its kicky freshness enlivens neutral veggies— think minted potato salad or eggplant yogurt dip with garlic and mint. Sugar-happy crops like carrots, beets and peas absolutely love this spunky herb, as do all kinds of beans. (Try marinating warm fava beans in a minty vinaigrette.)

In the meat department, mint beefs up grilled steaks and chicken, and sets off the funky, complex flavor of lamb. Chopped peppermint leaves cheer up salads based on couscous, barley, pasta or mixed greens. This is also where mint’s friendliness with other herbs and aromatics really shines, notably basil, cilantro, citrus, garlic, chiles and cumin. So mix and match away.

Char-Grilled Rib-Eye Steak with Mint “Pickle”

Fruit and mint? Naturally. Spike simple syrup with rum and spearmint and use it to macerate raspberries, blackberries or peaches. Or melon of any kind. And cheese—I bet you hadn’t thought of cheese. Blue-veined varieties and goat cheeses make a righteous match, but is there anything more perfect than feta with mint?

Managing Mint (It's Easier Than You Think)

Mint roots, called rhizomes, travel underground, sending up shoots that can overrun your garden. If you haven’t contained the herb in buried pots, one way to control its spread is to dry it. You’ll need, say, a whole four or five minutes of your day to tie bunches of rinsed stems together and hang them in a shady, ventilated spot. (Yes, I know: strenuous.) Forget about them for two, three weeks, then take another half-minute to crumble the brittle leaves. Stored airtight in a pretty jar, they will make your pantry look admirable. Not to mention the steaming, mint-spiky tea you’ll enjoy all winter. Can’t wait that long? Skip the drying. Fill a glass jug with sprigs, add water and set it in the sun to cold-brew. Voilà. Free iced tea.

Check out these delicious recipes using mint in a variety of ways. 

Then try your own and share with us in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter!

Individual Lamb Pita Pizzas (pictured above)

Char-Grilled Rib-Eye Steak with Mint “Pickle” (pictured above)

Chilled Honeydew Soup with Lemon, Mint and Dry Rosé

Papparadelle with Creamy Zucchini, Feta and Mint

Jujukh (Armenian Cucumbers, Yogurt and Spearmint)

Also using mint, Rhubarb and Mint Aronia-ade by Dani Lind.

Terese Allen has written scores of books and articles about the foodways of Wisconsin, including the award-winning titles "The Flavor of Wisconsin" and "The Flavor of Wisconsin for Kids." She is co-founder and a longtime leader of the Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin (CHEW). If you want to get Terese going, just ask her the best way to fix an old-fashioned, how to hunt for morels, or why fish fries thrive in our state.

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