Patchwork: Keeping my garden in mint condition
I have a love/hate thing going with mint. I love to cook with it; I hate how it insinuates itself through my garden. That’s just what it does, too, slithering its shoots in a dastardly network of rhizomes just beneath the soil’s surface like an episode from “Twilight Zone.” And there’s nothing to do about it short of digging up the entire bed. Even then it’ll reappear. At least that’s been my experience. No matter that I first brought it to the garden in pots — one apple mint plant, one peppermint and one spearmint — knowing better than to plant it directly into the garden. Silly me. Those runners found their way down through the bottoms of those pots in no time, through the raised beds, under the boards and merrily down the gravel paths.
The spearmint is especially feisty. I spend too much time from late spring through fall “harvesting,” yanking out wandering shoots, making bad jokes about making a mint, about the mint condition of my garden. Sometimes I wish I had planted it in an old bathtub (with the drain plugged) in some far corner of the land the way clever people do — let it grow to its heart’s content out there. Instead, I’m doing the unthinkable by adding another variety and cutting back on my cutting back.
Blame it on the rabbits.
We’ve always known the resident long-eared population thrives around here — hence the equally stout numbers of coyote, fox and bobcat. But they used to stick to the lawns, the fields, the driveway. Never the gardens. That was before our dog Finn died.
Our acres are a wildlife corridor, and we follow a mowing schedule that favors the field birds and their nesting needs; we make sure the hedgerows and copses stay healthy with native species, and we plant the orchard, the vegetable and the flower gardens with varieties birds, bees and butterflies like as much as we do. Of course, when you invite some of the wildlife population close to the house, and you have no dog, you end up inviting it all. Finn did a terrific job keeping them at a distance — how terrific we didn’t know until this first winter without him. The bobcat made himself available for photographs, the turkeys lounged about on the lawn, the coyote and deer paraded through the raised beds, and a black bear wreaked havoc with the bird feeders.
That does not bode well for the gardens. A wildlife corridor is a great thing until it takes a sharp turn into my food.
Indeed, last summer we got our first hint of lines being crossed, or rather, the animals got their first hint of my vegetables. To my husband’s delight, the deer did taste tests of the Brussels sprouts, the collards, the broccoli. And then there were all those Peter Rabbits. They beat the deer to the chard. Almost all of it, except for one patch surrounded by the monstrous mint. That they left alone. Completely. It turns out that they hate mint and apparently cannot risk getting the fragrant oil on their fur — they can’t smell predators through it. I can practically hear the mint cackling — it saved the day, or at least whatever chard it hadn’t choked.
And so I’ve decided to give it a bit of slack this year, plant things rabbits love inside the mint beds, try to keep the mint in some sort of order by hacking away at it, and see what happens.
But adding more? Blame that on my passion for Mediterranean-inspired cooking.
Throughout southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, mint sends its runners through pasta, couscous, yoghurt and lamb recipes. Indeed, it is a key member of my cooking staff, appearing in salads, soups, pizza, sauces. But it’s tea that has me planting the Egyptian varietal. I’ve been on a mission to recreate the mint tea I sipped in Morocco. Wouldn’t you know that my abundant stock doesn’t quite do it. Research tells me that mint is a funny fellow, the strains varying plant to plant, which is why it’s propagated through cuttings and not seeds. Of course. A nonconformist to the tips of its tendrils.
And so I have to risk a garden takeover to make my own perfect cup of tea, to keep the freezer stocked with mint pesto for the winter and to keep out the riff-raff. I’ll place the new pots — with strict instructions to my husband that he may not move them — in a bank around the brassica beds and see if I get tea and broccoli. And if the mint just tries to make a run for it, I’ll banish it to bathtubs once and for all.
Mint prefers a wet start, but will take to almost any site. Ask a friend with an over-abundance of mint to pull you a clump. Pinching off the very tops will help it become bushy and ensure the steady supply of tender leaves. I find that mature mint leaves are tough and sharper-tasting than tender new ones — I dry them for tea.
Use long stems of mint in fresh bouquets, with or without flowers.
Dry it for tea and cooking: Harvest bunches early on a sunny morning when the dew has just dried. Hang upside down in bunches in a cool spot out of the sun. Hanging in paper bags works well if it isn’t humid. Once thoroughly dry, store in airtight glass containers out of the light.
Moroccan Mint Tea
Boiling water (6 oz. per person)
A pinch of gunpowder green tea per person (1 tsp.)
A pinch of dried mint per person (1 tsp.)
A bunch of fresh mint (3-6 big stems per person)
Sugar to taste (Moroccans tend to make it very sweet — about 2 tsp. per person; I use closer to 1/2 tsp. per person)
Small glasses (about the size of a shot glass)
Warm a teapot by swishing about a bit of the boiling water and pouring out. Place the ingredients in the warmed teapot, and a pinch more of dried tea and mint for the pot. Pour boiling water over and let steep for three-five minutes — fill half of a glass with the fresh tea and throw it away. The tannins collect in the first cup, so this pouring-out reduces bitterness. Holding the spout of the teapot high above the glass (as high as you can get it without spattering the tea when poured), fill a glass, pour it back into the pot. Repeat twice. Pour again and this time, serve.
Pasta with Fresh Peas, Ricotta and Mint Pesto
Inspired by my daughters, who introduced me to mint pesto
1 lb. fresh or dried long pasta (e.g. spaghetti or linguini)
1 large bunch fresh mint (generous 2 cups of tender leaves and a few extra cut into thin strips)
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup olive oil, more if needed (the best you have)
1/2-whole clove of garlic, peeled
sea or kosher salt
2-3 Tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted until golden in a dry skillet (optional)
juice of half lemon (or more to taste) and the zest of one lemon cut into thin strips
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan and/or pecorino cheese
1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese
2 cups fresh shell peas, snap peas, favas or a combination
a pinch of hot pepper flakes (optional)
1. If you have a mortar and pestle, make a paste of the garlic, a small pinch of salt and a tablespoon or so of the olive oil. You can also skip this step and add the garlic after the mint is chopped in Step 2.
2. Wash and dry the mint and parsley. Pull the leaves from the stems, discard stems, bruise leaves with a pestle or the back of a wooden spoon to release the fragrance and oils a bit and place in a food processor or blender. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the garlic paste or whole clove, the optional pine nuts and pulse until chopped and mixed.
3. Add the lemon juice and the olive oil bit by bit, pulsing until you have a creamy pesto.
4. Mix in the cheese.
5. Taste and add more lemon, oil or salt if you like.
6. Place the pesto in the bottom of a large, shallow bowl. Mix in the ricotta scoop by scoop until well mixed. It will be quite thick at this point.
7. Cook the pasta in boiling water. As it cooks, sauté the peas very quickly in a small amount of olive oil. (No more than 10 seconds if they are fresh, longer if they are older.) Fold into the ricotta-pesto. When the pasta is ready, pour a couple of large spoonfuls of its cooking water into the sauce and stir a few times to thin to a smooth consistency.
8. Drain the pasta and pour into the bowl, mixing well. Add the lemon zest and hot pepper flakes. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt if needed.
9. Serve, topped by a sprinkling of cut mint leaves and accompanied by freshly grated parmesan for each person to add if they wish. Buon Appetito!
Use half parsley, half mint. Add a handful of basil. Reduce the cheeses and add crumbled feta cheese. Eliminate the ricotta. Serve with oil-cured olives, or nasturtium or squash flowers quickly sautéed. Serve with diced fresh dates and pomegranate seeds on couscous.
All kinds of pesto freeze well. I pour batches into ice cube trays, cover with a bit of olive oil, then freeze. Store in bags or jars in the freezer. Frozen cubes can be added to spaghetti sauces, to tagines, to mashed potatoes, to polenta, to pizza toppings.