Coming to Appreciate a Generous Hint of Mint
Mint is a mysterious herb. What is its essence, that uniquely cool and difficult to describe burst of icy freshness that our mouths can sense even before it lands on our tongues? And where the heck does it come from? When I was young, I knew of mint as little more than a flavor and could recognize it by color – it was sometimes green, blue, or often white. I ate peppermint candies such as Andes chocolates, York Peppermint Patties, candy canes, and Altoids but only sparingly. I also watched my sister consume tubs of mint chocolate chip ice cream but was never too fond of it myself. My disinterest may have been caused by the ice cream’s resemblance to pistachio (to which I’m allergic), but it likely had more to do with the fact that mint has always irked me – what is it? How can something hot, like mint tea, feel so cold? Why do Altoids and mint toothpaste bite my tongue?
It wasn’t until I was about eight years old that I was finally introduced to mint – you know, the real thing. My parents, both singers, used to practice and perform with a local New York City choir that took yearly retreats to the group director’s multi-acre home in Cornwall, Connecticut. My older sister and I were more often than not dragged along to the choir’s rehearsals, concerts, and these summer retreats, during which I became well-acquainted with nature (or at least more so than I could ever become at my home in the New Jersey suburbs). We camped in cabins, dined outdoors in overgrown fields, swam in lakes rather than pools. One afternoon, in exploring the garden with my parents, I discovered a thick bush of mint, proliferating in its weed-like way. Much to my surprise and initial disgust, the bright green leaves tasted nothing like Altoids – they tasted like lettuce (yuck) with the slightest, almost indecipherable, hint of minty freshness. My sister claimed to love it. I still think she was lying.
Over the years I’ve become much fonder of mint and now, looking back, can attribute my growing respect for the herb to the day when we were first introduced. In that garden in Connecticut, I learned the difference between mint and mint flavor and now appreciate the two as separate entities. I like mint in my tabbouleh, rubbed on lamb, with watermelon and/or sweet corn. I like mint extract in ice cream, candies, and baked goods so long as its addition is intended (I once used peppermint extract in place of vanilla when making chocolate chip cookies, but that’s a story for another time). In these chewy chocolate mint cookies with chocolate chunks, the mint flavor faces a tough competitor – chocolate – but comes out as the true star.
To all of you mint skeptics out there, I sympathize, but these cookies may very well convert each of you into a mint fanatic like I now am. If the fact that the warm cookies seem cool still irks you, then try freezing them. Not only will they last longer (if you can keep from eating them), but they’ll also be as cold to the touch as they are to taste and will melt in your mouth like the most luxurious after dinner mint. Don’t worry – mint is, by nature, a plant. It doesn’t bite.