If there’s one herb that is top of the list for people wanting to start to grow their own, it has to be mint. The biggest problem with this family of aromatic herbs isn’t so much growing them as stopping them taking over the garden and are often grown in a pot. While we think of sweets or perhaps mint sauce with lamb, there are so many uses of mint that there is something for everyone.
Meet the mints
Most of the mint variations we deal with come from the family called Mentha, part of the larger Lamiacea or mint family. The majority of the plants are perennial herbs that come back each year, though there are some annual varieties. Leaves come in a variety of colours from dark green to greyish green and even purple and blue shades. Likewise, their flowers can be white to purple.
The most popular mint species we know in the UK include peppermint (Menthe piperita); Garden mint (Menthe sachalinensis); spearmint (Menthe spicata) and applemint (Mentha suaveolens). In its natural environment, mint plants grow near lakes, rivers and other moist spots with some shade but they are also able to adapt to most conditions, growing all year round and able to work in almost any garden or pot. As well as for their own uses, mint is grown as a companion plant because it repels insects that attack other plants while attracting beneficial ones.
Growing and harvesting mint
You can buy mint seeds from a garden centre or online as well as picking up the established plants anywhere from the local plant nursery to the supermarket. Because they grow easily, they are popular and their smell makes a pleasant addition to a garden pot near a seating area.
Mint can be harvested in small, regular amounts or one big harvest at the end of the year where almost all of the plant is harvested at once. This can usually be done around three times a year, though the later harvest may be a little less potent than earlier ones. Once harvested, the leaves can be used, dried or even cut into smaller pieces and frozen with water in ice cube trays to be defrosted and used as needed.
Uses of mint
The uses of mint are diverse and can focus on its use in food or its aroma. For instance, making peppermint oil is a popular choice for those who like scented oils. It is used in both aromatherapy as well as in cooking and is known to help treat indigestion as well as for aiding with illnesses such as nausea and headaches. It is even beneficial for the hair and skin.
Making peppermint oil is relatively simple, although it probably won’t be quite to the quality of mass produced products. All you need is a bunch of fresh leaves that can be crushed by hand or with a mixed. Stuff them into a jar and add the carrier oil, often olive or almond oil depending on what you want to use the end product for. Use cling film over the top of the jar then put the lid on and leave to steep for two days in summer or for a month in winter, shaking the jar every 12 hours or so. To use the oil, strain it using cheesecloth and store in a fresh bottle where it will last for three to six months.
Cooking with mint
Mint sauce is one of the first things people mention when you talk about cooking with mint and is commonly used with lamb and other red meat dishes to add a touch of flavour. It is also simple to make. Take a bunch of mint, a pinch of salt, 4 tablespoons of boiling water and the same of white wine vinegar then one tablespoon of caster sugar. Strip the leaves, salt then chop finely before adding to a jug. Put the sugar in then pour the water, stir and leave to cool. Once cooled, stir vinegar into the mix and taste it, adding more water or vinegar depending on your taste. Then it is ready to use.
Mint is also a popular addition to light summer soups, working well with green vegetables such as pea, courgette and asparagus. It is also a great addition to a range of fruit based drinks and desserts such as sugared strawberries or with chocolate ice cream. It can be made into a simple herbal tea while it is well-known for its part in some big name cocktails such as the Mojito and in sangria.