Mint is a very common forageable plant, particularly in urban and suburban areas, as it has a tendency to creep out of a cultivated garden and then take off on its own. One plant can quickly turn into a dense patch if not properly contained. While the tenacious growth of mint can be the bane of a tidy garden, it is great for the urban forager. Look on the edges of properties for patches that have made their way onto public land.
As far as identification goes, there are many edible species in the Mint (Mentha) genus, so I won’t go much into specifics here. Spearmint is a very common variety, and you are all familiar with peppermint, but anymore there are hundreds of varieties of mint, from apple to lavender to chocolate. If you are familiar with mint, you ought to be able to recognize the leaves of many of them, and the scent is a dead giveaway of a species in the Mentha genus.
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is the only toxic plant in the Mentha genus that I am aware of, though there may be others. It is toxic to the liver, but has a long history of use as a culinary herbs and a medicine. Pennyroyal has historically been used as an emmenagogue (to stimulate menstruation), as well as a contraceptive and abortifacient. Pennyroyal is also used in tamer ways, such as keeping pests out of the garden.
Although that stuff about pennyroyal’s toxicity and umedicinal uses may be a bit intimidating, it also has a long history of being used as an herb in cooking, and is still taken by many people for a variety of ailments. Apicius, the famed Roman cookbook writer, used pennyroyal as a flavoring agent in many dishes, and Cleopatra was said to take it regularly. So, do your research, and probably try not to eat it, but don’t let it scare you away from foraging for wild mint.
The most familiar medicinal use of plants in the mint family is to treat gastrointestinal issues like upset stomach, cramping, and gas. On top of that, it has been shown in some studies with rats to have anti-allergenic effects and to reduce symptoms of asthma. There are many medicinal uses for mint, though I typically just stick to its culinary uses (and there are plenty of those too).
This is one of my favorite dishes to make when it is really hot out, a nice watermelon gazpacho. A small serving of a sweet, cool soup might be the ideal way to start a meal in hot weather, and the combination of mint and watermelon is one of the best flavors of summer. This gazpacho is cool, refreshing, and screams healthy at you while you sip it–preferably with a mojito or mint julep on the side to counterbalance all those nutrients.
Watermelon and Mint Gazpacho
3 cups watermelon, cubed
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
3 roma tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
½ red onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup mint, lightly packed
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp cumin
1 cup stale bread, soaked and drained (optional)
A little bit before you are ready to make your gazpacho, submerge your stale bread in a bowl of water. It takes a few minutes to re-hydrate. While the bread is re-hydrating, you can prepare the rest of your ingredients.
Peel, seed, and coarsely chop all your vegetables and toss them in a blender with the spices and oil. When this is done, take the rehydrated bread, squeeze out most of the water, and toss this in the blender as well. You can make the gazpacho without the bread, but it will not have the same silkiness.
Blend the ingredients until silky smooth. You want them beautifully pureed to ensure you are getting as much as possible out of your vegetables.
Next you will strain the gazpacho. Pour the soup in batches through a fine sieve. This part is technically optional, but if you do not strain the gazpacho it has what I consider to be a very unpleasant mouthfeel. With each batch, get as much liquid through as you can and then rinse the solids from the sieve.
Once the gazpacho is all strained, place it in the fridge for an hour or two (or much longer) to allow the flavors to meld and the soup to chill.
Best served in small portions (~6 oz.) with a few crunchy bits on the top, such as croutons.