Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Good Herbs - Mint

Mint is such a lovely herb with so many uses. It lends its flavor to delicious foods and beverages both sweet and savory - would Girl Scout cookies have become such a tradition without Thin Mints? Could the Kentucky Derby go on without mint juleps? Tabouli without mint is just - well, it's not tabouli. For some people, leg of lamb requires mint jelly and after the first time I tried it, I became a convert (mint jelly's as easy to make as any other jelly - easier than many). 

The zucchini are producing well in our garden (so I guess I'm doing a good job as a bee substitute - Joe's suggested I should wear a black and yellow striped rugby shirt and hum loudly as I go about my morning pollinating chores) and so it's time for one of my favorite simple soups, this one adapted from a 2007 recipe at

Zucchini - Mint Soup (serves 4)
2 tsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
2 - 3 cloves garlic, peeled and pushed through a garlic press or minced fine
3 medium zucchini, in 1" cubes
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup milk
2 handfuls fresh mint (leaves and tender stems; discard any tough-ish stems)
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pan sauté the onion in olive oil over medium heat till soft. Add garlic and zucchini and sauté another minute or 2 or 3, then add stock and milk and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 5  minutes. 
     Remove from heat and stir in the mint, then use a slotted spoon to transfer the solids (and some of the liquid) to the blender and purée. Hot liquids in the blender can be temperamental; I take out the clear plastic insert that goes in the middle of the cover and hold a clean dishtowel over the opening - that seems to let enough of the hot air escape to avoid the kind of dramatic whoosh and possible explosion that can occur if you cover it too tightly.
     Return the puréed soup to the pan and stir it all together, season to taste with salt and pepper, then serve in bowls garnished with a few mint leaves, if you like.
Spearmint, pictured above, is used mostly for culinary purposes; peppermint is more often used for medicinal reasons. Peppermint tea can ease various tummy aches (and kids usually like it). According to Judith Fitzsimmons and Paula M. Bousquet, authors of Aromatherapy through the Seasons, a drop of peppermint oil massaged into your temples can help alleviate a headache, especially if you can sit quietly with your feet up and your eyes closed for a little while (but keep the peppermint oil away from your eyes!).
     Fitzsimmons and Bousquet also give a couple of formulas for rubs to use when you've over-exerted or strained muscles. I like this one (partly because the recipe is so simple, but also because it's effective):
Mix 10 drops each Peppermint, Eucalyptus, and Rosemary essential oils into 2 Tbsp. of a carrier oil (plain old vegetable oil works fine, but you can use jojoba, olive, avocado or most other oils as well).
Ice the area first if you've got a sprain, then massage with the oil blend. (Fitzsimmons' website,, gives some other recipes in the articles section.)
     Peppermint is invigorating and can help you feel alert and ready to start the day, especially in partnership with rosemary. In my post of December 30, 2010, I gave the recipe for Pantry Bath Salts.  The version Joe likes uses 15 drops each of peppermint and rosemary essential oil.
     The following "All-Purpose Spray" from Aromatherapy through the Seasons is meant to lift the spirits as well as clear the air, but the authors say it can also be used when ants invade the house (since that's happening right here, right now, I'm going to give it a try): 

All-Purpose Spray
4 drops Lavender essential oil 
2 drops Peppermint essential oil 
2 drops Tea Tree essential oil 
Mix into 2 cups of water and put in a spray bottle. Shake before using.

I first heard of mint as a pest repellent when I was a little girl and we started getting mice in the house. A neighbor suggested planting mint at the foundation at the back of the house, where we thought they were getting in. Whether it was the mint or a new cat, the mice vanished. Apparently ants don't like mint either; as I said, I'm about to test that theory, because I really hate the idea of chemical poisons.
     Mint is easy to grow, though it's happier in the ground than in a pot, no doubt because it has dreams of empire, i.e., it's one of the more invasive herbs you can plant. Here in hot, dry Arizona, I have mine in a relatively shady back corner of the garden where it gets plenty of water and yes, I am resigned to the idea that it will spread. I've tried various ways of containing it. One of the best, in the yard of a previous house, was to cut out the bottom of a plastic wastebasket, sink the basket in the ground so it wouldn't show, and plant the mint in it. The sides of the basket kept it from spreading out but with the bottom cut out it had plenty of drainage. I didn't do that this time, and I suppose I may regret it, but a thriving patch of mint is a beautiful thing to see, and a useful addition to any garden.

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