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Wild mint offers fresh opportunities

I'm a big fan of mint. Mint grows wild here in the foothills of the Appalachians, and many other places as well.

A lot of people hate mint - it takes over garden areas and is almost impossible to get rid of once it gets started.  I've never understood the problem. I love mint, no matter where it pops up. It can fill a bare spot, act as fragrant ground cover and choke out more annoying weeds, and it will grow almost anywhere that you can't get anything else to grow.

If you really want to control it, a container planting is best, but I've never planted mint in a container in my life.  I can't get enough of it - spearmint, apple mint, chocolate mint, orange mint. You name it, I love it.

And so, despite the proliferation of mint in my gardens, I've been picking it from the wild.

Lassoing wild mint is just so much more of an adventure, you know. You can't really make a mistake picking wild mint because the fragrance will hit you as soon as you get near it. You can use wild mint the same way you would use cultivated garden mint, of course.

Mint tea is purported to be good for many things, such as stomachaches and colds or flu, to calm stress, and to lessen headaches. Directly rubbing the leaves on your chest is said to be a cure for congestion, and rubbing the leaves on your teeth will relieve an ache. Chewing the leaves freshens your breath, and arranging mint in vases in your house is not only beautiful but repels insects and rodents. I have mint in vases and jars in my house almost every week (and I don't even have a bug or rat problem). Mint is a fragrant and free bouquet. I especially like to make cuttings with the flower heads. You can also add dried mint to potpourri.

Mint should be picked in mid-morning or early evening - never in the heat of the day - for the best oil retention. Also, be sure to gather mint that hasn't flowered yet (unless using for a decorative purpose).

Mint tea makes a tasty beverage even if you're not into the medicinal effects. Simply rinse the mint in cold water, drain, place in a pot, and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil and simmer until it's as strong as you want it to be. Strain the leaves and filter the tea. Add sugar, chill, and pour over ice.

Mint, like most herbs, should be dried on the lowest setting of your dehydrator or in a very, very low oven. (Better to use a dehydrator if you have one so you can control the temperature.) Drying at higher temperatures will destroy the oils that give the flavor and aroma. It takes a long time to do correctly, but it's worth the effort.

You can also dry mint the old-fashioned way by hanging it in bunches. When I dry this way, I place the bunches inside a paper bag while they're hanging to keep out dust. When the mint is thoroughly dried, try to not crush the leaves until right before using to retain the oils.

I've always loved homemade mint jelly with lamb (an Easter staple at my house growing up), but there's more to mint than jelly. Use dried mint as you would any herb; mint complements chicken and pork, not just lamb. Mint, fresh or dried, is also delicious in salads, pasta, rice, and other vegetable dishes as well as desserts. And don't forget the homemade mint ice cream. Many sweet mint recipes start with a mint extract or mint simple syrup.

To make a mint extract, fill a jar loosely with fresh mint leaves, gently "bruising" (crushing the leaves between your fingers to release the oils) as you put them in the jar.  Add vodka and let steep for six to eight weeks. This is the same way you make homemade vanilla extract with split vanilla beans. Mint extract, like vanilla extract, lasts indefinitely.

For mint simple syrup, you can use an even ratio such as one cup of mint leaves to one cup each of water and sugar. Bring water to a boil; add sugar and mint. Reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Cool; strain leaves. Store in the fridge. Tip: Add a pinch of cream of tartar to the boiling mixture and the syrup won't crystallize in storage.

If you have too much mint this time of year, get busy! There are so many ways to use it.  And if you've somehow made it through life without a patch or 10 of mint in your gardens, don't despair. Take a walk down a country road and lasso some mint from the wild.

Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at www.chickensintheroad.com.

 


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