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Mint Condition

Martha Stewart Living, May 2008

No other herb is as vivid or as versatile. With flavors sharp or gentle, bold or subtle, mint enlivens dishes both savory and sweet.

There's a spectacular, if simple, salad on the menu at one of New York City's best restaurants: sunny rounds of orange dressed with olive oil and diced fennel. But what makes the dish truly come alive is its generous, and unexpected, scattering of slivered fresh mint -- not thyme, oregano, or any of those trendier herbs such as shiso. Why the surprise? Mint is as familiar as toothpaste, as soothing as tea. It lacks the spiky swagger of rosemary, the Provencal flair of lavender. Think of it this way: If basil is a Roman youngster on a Vespa, shirtless and suntanned, mint is homier, a woman of a certain age fussing about her cottage garden in England's Cotswolds.

Despite its perceived dissimilarity, mint is botanically related to almost every culinary herb that once grew wild on the hills of the Mediterranean. It's more familiar, tamer. It's a default herb, the go-to garnish for anything that needs a sparky touch of green, from breakfast melon to fillet of sole. It's the sprig that's picked off first and, sadly, rarely eaten. Its ubiquity defies its magic.

Mint does, however, have a rather sexy Greek mythology. Although no one quite agrees, the gist is that the nymph Mentha (also known as Minthe) once caught the eye of Hades (also known as Pluto, god of the underworld). This flirtation so angered his wife, Persephone, that she, in retaliation, turned Mentha into a plant.

The luckless herb, some say, was trampled into the earth, causing it to spring up everywhere. This myth may stretch the imagination, but it certainly accounts for the plant's promiscuous growth habit of sending probing roots underground, to the general consternation of most gardeners, who frequently find it where they do not want it.

Look closely at one of those errant sprigs and you'll discover a fuzziness that greets your fingers and tongue. This comes from tiny hairs containing glands, which store the herb's aromatic essential oil. If you find mint to be cooling, you're right. As food scientist Harold McGee explains, in "On Food and Cooking," menthol binds to receptors on temperature-sensitive nerve cells in the mouth, causing those cells to signal the brain that they are cooler than they really are by anywhere from seven to 13 degrees. Can you think of a better reason why mint always tastes so refreshingly green?

Mint's invasive tendency and invigorating flavor have made their way into every food culture. Mint is the sharp surprise in Asian noodle soup, the spark in Greek tabbouleh, the mellowness in braised Roman artichokes. It enhances chocolate, makes aromatic tea, and melds perfectly with lamb that shared those same sun-baked hillsides. So why not include it in pasta dough? Or a vinaigrette? Why not make true mint ice cream? Or use it in anything, for that matter? An herb with such color and power deserves a better, less predictable fate. It's time to rethink mint.

Recipes
Seviche with Mint and Grapefruit
Flatbread Topped with Mint, Feta, and Lamb
Pea Shoots, Crisped Pancetta, and Mint Vinaigrette
Mint Ravioli Stuffed with Goat Cheese
Mint-Marinated Shrimp with Glass Noodles
Chocolate-Peppermint Tarts with Currants and Berries
Fresh Spearmint Ice Cream
More Mint Recipes

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