Saturday, May 6, is Kentucky Derby Day, a time for celebration among horse lovers and an excuse to pull out the fresh mint!
Actually, it’s always a good time to enjoy fresh mint. The best will come from farm markets when they open in a few weeks here in New England, but good produce departments and ethnic, especially Indian, markets have it year round.
The Mint Julep used to be the most famous drink utilizing fresh mint. It also incorporates sugar and bourbon, traditionally served in a silver or pewter cup with lots of crushed ice. Some people muddle the mint and sugar together (releasing the mint aromas), others make a syrup, and lots of folks serve it in a regular rocks or cocktail glass. Thousands of these will be served in Louisville, KY, on Saturday, and race viewers will join them in hoisting this treat as they watch the race televised around the world.
The most popular mint drink today is the Mojito, a Havana, Cuba, native, and very similar to the Mint Julep. It’s a little time consuming to make it right (and why bother if not?). First you take perfect mint leaves, washed, then put into a glass with sugar. Muddle them together, not long enough to destroy the leaves, add rum and fresh lime juice, add club soda, add ice and garnish with a sprig. One fine day, when lime prices go back down, it will make sense again to garnish with lime slices as well, but this is cosmetic, not adding flavor, so can be skipped.
It is said that this was a favorite libation of Ernest Hemingway, but this may be apocryphal, made up by a restaurant he frequented or by other promoter in history.
Recipes for both cocktails are plentiful on the internet. Just beware of sponsored sites supported by brands other than good bourbons and rums, as they’ll tell you to use the wrong spirit, which might (or might not) be tasty, but will definitely not be authentic.
Don’t be daunted by the term “muddling”! This simply means that you smash the leaves around a bit, the sugar providing the texture to bruise the leaves a little. And, you don’t need to buy a muddling tool, which does make it easier, and also sets you up to make a traditional Old Fashioned, a bourbon drink with crushed fruit. You can use a spoon with nearly as good results.
A wonderful, non-alcoholic use of fresh mint is simply to infuse in hot water, and have mint tea, which is a step above what is made with ubiquitous tea bags.
If you have bought a bunch of mint leaves, and it’s just too much for the amount of Juleps or Mojitos (or Indian recipes) you are making, you may be able to root the sprigs. Simply put the stems into water, set on a window sill, and wait. If you are lucky, they will root, and you can pot or transplant to the garden. If not, have some more Mojitos next week, or the week after, as the mint will stay in great shape.
One safety note on these mint drinks: It’s a raw vegetable, and treat it as such if you are tempted to order one in any location where the water quality would cause you to avoid eating salads.