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Nature's refresher

The Baltimore Sun

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.

"I'm always talking about how wealthy I am because I can go outside and just take something," she says. "You can have real flavor very quickly at no cost."

She likes to toss mint into fruit salad "to give it a little pizazz." She grinds it into pesto. In the summer, she'll freeze fresh strawberries, puree them, throw in a little sugar and some mint on top and pronounce it: "Delicious."

Avins considers herself something of an herb renegade, grabbing random handfuls of her backyard bounty and throwing the cuttings into dishes, any dishes -- recipes be damned.

When it comes to mint, she'd counsel anyone to be that adventurous, with conditions.

"It depends," she says, "on how much excitement you want in your meal."


Types of mint

The mint family is quite a large one, thanks to its tendency to form hybrids. Just a few include:

Spearmint: The most common and useful cooking mint. It has a distinct mint scent and a light flavor that will not overwhelm food.

Peppermint: With darker leaves and stems than spearmint, peppermint is also much stronger. It offers a mouth-freshening, sweet taste.

Apple mint: Also called pineapple mint, this variety has crinkled leaves with a fuzzy appearance. Its flavor is similar to spearmint, but has an added hint of apple.

Bergamot mint: Types include citrus-scented mints such as Lemon, Lime and Orange Bergamot. Has small green leaves tinged with bronze/purple and a strong, lemony scent.

[Jill Rosen / Sources: "The Spice and Herb Bible" and "The Penguin Companion to Food"]

Mint Jelly

Makes 4 cups

2 pounds Granny Smith apples

5 cups water

juice of 3 lemons

1 bunch mint, finely chopped

1 pound sugar

Chop apples roughly and boil with water and lemon juice until soft. Strain the mixture, discarding apples. Add mint and sugar to the liquid and stir until sugar dissolves. Boil until a little of the liquid sets into a blob in cold water. Bottle and seal while hot.

Courtesy of Maria Price-Nowakowski, Willow Oak Flower and Herb Farm

Per tablespoon: 27 calories, 0 grams protein, 0 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 7 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 0 milligrams sodium

Mint Tisane

Makes 3 to 6 cups

1 bunch fresh mint

1 bunch fresh lemon verbena (optional)

3 to 6 cups boiling water

sugar to taste (optional)

Place mint and lemon verbena (including stems) in teapot. Pour in boiling water and allow to steep about 5 minutes. Add sugar, if desired. Serve in small Moroccan or other clear tea glasses.

From "The Oprah Magazine Cookbook"

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 3 calories, 0 grams protein, 0 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, trace fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 9 milligrams sodium

Herbed Rice With Parsley -- Serves 2 to 3 as entree, more as a side dish

1 cup jasmine or other rice, uncooked

1 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon butter, in 2 pieces

1/2 cup grated Romano or parmesan cheese

1/4 cup finely chopped mint leaves

3/4 cup finely chopped parsley

1 cup frozen peas, defrosted in a few changes of cool water

black pepper to taste

Put rice and water in a pot, bring to boil, stir, cover and turn down the heat to simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off heat; put butter on top but do not stir. After 5 to 10 minutes, gently scoop rice into a large bowl so you can mix without mushing the rice. Add the cheese and mix until well combined. Then add the herbs and mix until combined. Add the peas and combine. Serve with plenty of black pepper.

Courtesy of gardener Miriam Avins of Baltimore

Per serving (based on 3 servings): 264 calories, 13 grams protein, 10 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 32 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 403 milligrams sodium

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