Mint: It Grows Like a Weed, but That’s Okay

Herbs in the mint family are known to be so invasive that it is generally recommended that they be grown in pots rather than directly in the ground. A few years ago,  I started a couple of large pots of spearmint by the back steps. I still have those pots of mint. Kansas winters can’t kill them off, but grasshoppers can do some damage.  While the leaves are still pristine, having not yet been gnawed upon by the voracious grasshoppers that seem to plague my garden during the summer and are already appearing, I’ve decided to harvest some of the mint. So I have been thinking of its culinary uses. (In the post immediately following this I give a cocktail recipe that I created for using homemade mint products.)

Tip: To harvest mint, make sure that it has been well watered for several weeks prior to cutting. Cut mint in the morning before the heat of the day has started to set in and, preferably, cut only stems of mint that have not yet started to flower. Clean with cold water. Use only undamaged leaves.

Uses

(1) Mint Tea

Place a large quantity of leaves in a teapot. Pour fresh boiling water over leaves and let steep for about 5 minutes. Strain to serve. Variations: add lemon balm leaves, chamomile flowers, black or green tea leaves, orange or lemon peel, and so forth.

(2) Mint Simple Syrup

Add 1 cup cold water and 1 cup granulated white sugar to a non-stick pot. Heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved. (No need to simmer.) Place 2 c. mint leaves in a large glass bowl. Carefully pour simple syrup over mint and allow to sit for 5 to 15 minutes. Squeeze juice from leaves into syrup. Stain into syrup into a glass jar.

Use in cocktails such as Mint Juleps or Mojitos.  Use to sweeten lemonade or  to sweeten black or herbal teas  (hot or iced). Toss a small amount with fresh fruit such as honeydew or grapefruit segments for a minty fruit salad.

(3) Mint-Infused Vodka or Rum/Mint Extract

Fill a glass jar with fresh mint and top off with vodka or white rum. Cover tightly and shake. To make infused-vodka, store in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Strain out mint leaves and pour vodka into a glass bottle. To make extract, allow the mint leaves to sit in the vodka for 2 weeks before straining. While the mixture is sitting for the 2 weeks, remove any leaves that float to the top and turn brown.

Use vodka or rum in cocktails. Use extract in brownies, cookies, or whipped cream.

(4) Dried Mint Leaves

Hang bunch of leaves on stems 4 – 5″ long and hang in a warm, dry place or dry leaves in an oven or food dehydrator.

Use for teas or  in middle Eastern and far Eastern dishes.

That’s all that I came up with for today. What are your favorite ways to use mint, whether spearmint or some other variety? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Growing and Cooking with Herbs

The Portia Club from Wamego came over today for a tour of the house and garden and a discussion of growing and cooking with herbs. They are a very lovely group of women to chat with.

Here are  some of the things we talked about:

(1) Using herbs in the landscape versus growing them in pots. Some herbs such as Golden Oregano make wonderful groundcovers without being invasive. Some such as Sage are attractive accent plants when in bloom. Parsley is a good plant for butterfly gardens. Anything in the mint family, however, will have a tendency to take over the garden if not harvested on a regular basis and so should be grown in pots. The pots can be placed in the ground, though, if you want to hide the pots in the landscape. Many herbs are suitable for container gardens.  Basil, Parsley, and Cilantro come to mind for potted arrangements as well as some of the fancy Sage varieties.

(2) Herbs want sun. I’ve tried growing herbs in shade to part shade. I haven’t found any that are happy with those conditions. They don’t all like heat, however. Cilantro, for example, will go to seed as soon as it gets hot. So in hot areas, late afternoon shade will help extend its growing season. Others, such as Basil, are very intolerant of cold temperatures. So don’t put basil outside when temperatures might still dip into the 40’s. Grey leaved herbs such as Sage and Lavender are more drought resistant than green leafy herbs such as basil which will need regular watering when it is hot.

(3) Overwintering of herbs.  This year I left large pots of Rosemary, Oregano, and Spearmint outside over the winter. They came back fine. It was the first winter that I have had luck doing this.  Two things were different from other years. One, of course, was that we had a milder winter – it was still definitely a winter with freezing temperatures, though. The other difference was that I had the herbs in large pots so I think that they had enough soil to give the roots a bit of insulation. Some people have luck bringing their herbs inside for the winter. Expect the herbs to go through a period of adjustment and make sure that they have enough sun if you are going to try this.

(4) Cooking with fresh herbs. When cooking with fresh herbs, the thing to remember is that they are fresh. Their fresh flavor is what you want to come across. I like to use them in cold sauces and dips – added right before serving. Their fresh flavor can also be harnessed by using them in compound butters – in a food processor blend softened butter and herbs with citrus zest, citrus juice and/or spices. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate. If using herbs in a cooked sauce, add them right at the end of cooking to get the best flavor.

(5) Other ways to capture flavor. The flavor of herbs can also be preserved by using them to flavor simple syrups and vinegars. (See my post, The Underrated Chive.) Simple syrup is made by heating sugar and water (either equal parts or twice as much sugar as water) until the sugar is dissolved. Herbs, such as spearmint or lemon balm, can be added during the cooking and allowed to sit in the syrup for about 20 to 30 minutes after removing from heat. They should then be strained out before the syrup is bottled. Simple syrups can be used to flavor drinks such as iced tea or cocktails or to flavor desserts. Flavored vinegars can be added to salad dressings and sauces.

(6) Drying herbs. Generally herbs should be harvested before blooming – unless it is the blooms that you are harvesting –  and before the weather starts to turn cool. The real key to drying herbs, though, is to dry them quickly so that they don’t rot before they are dried out. Herbs such as Rosemary, with a lower moisture content can be suspended in small bunches in an airy, dry space out of direct sunlight. For herbs with a higher moisture content, such as Parsley, the method with which I have had the best luck is spreading the cleaned leaves out on a large baking sheet and placing them in the oven using just the pilot light or the lowest heat until the moisture has evaporated. Then I transfer them to a zip top freezer bag and freeze. Some herbs such as chervil, however, just don’t dry well.

Happy gardening! Happy cooking!

Top photo: Sage, Rosemary & Oregano

Middle photo: Golden Oregano by Day Lilies

Bottom photo: Potted Herbs (Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Thai Basil, Tarragon)

Rosemary

For this first time ever, I have successfully over-wintered Rosemary in a pot outdoors. I am thrilled to have fresh rosemary to cook with that I thought that I would share my favorite way to use it. Start with fresh rosemary that has been washed and dried off. Put some olive oil and fresh rosemary in a skillet, then warm over medium heat. Once the rosemary has lost its bright green color, remove from pan. Use flavored olive oil right away to flavor eggs, potatoes, asparagus or mushrooms.Image