Peppermint for Tea

One of my favorite things about summer is the smell of peppermint—from the fields, after a cutting; from the tubs full of fresh-chopped mint, as they’re trucked by our place on the way to the distillery; and even from the pummy (the word comes from pomace), when it’s steaming in a heap in my garden a year after harvest.

The peppermint grown commercially in the Willamette Valley nearly all gets distilled into oil, for toothpaste, chewing gum, and candy. After the mint is cut and chopped in the field, it’s blown into enormous enclosed tubs that each become part of a still. One hose is attached at the base of the tub to inject steam, and another is attached to the top of the tub to collect the oily steam and feed it into a condenser. In a separator can, the oil rises to the top of the water. The steamed mint “hay” then gets dumped in piles, where it fragrantly rots into what must be one of the world’s best combined soil conditioner–fertilizers (provided the mint hasn’t been sprayed with a long-lasting herbicide such as Stinger).

If you want peppermint for tea or any other purpose, your local mint farmer might not be prepared to accommodate you. My children, when they were little, addressed this problem by ripping a peppermint stolon from a neighbor’s field and burying it in our front garden. This is actually the way mint is normally propagated; seedlings are too variable. In the front garden the mint has spread a little over the years, but not much, because I give this thirsty herb scant summer water. In this way I’ve managed to ensure enough peppermint for an occasional cup of tea without the whole garden’s turning into a peppermint patch.

A good time to dry peppermint is just before it flowers, especially if this happens to be when you’re feeling guilty for running a half-empty electric food dryer. Last week my North Star cherries were nearly dry when I thought to add a few trays of peppermint to the dehydrator.

Some people prefer to dry their herbs in bunches hung from the ceiling. My daughter, actually, has a bunch of lavender hanging from the kitchen light fixture right now. For most herbs, this technique tends to work well only in places like California or the Southwest. Here in western Oregon, the weather is seldom hot and dry enough to dry herbs well—that is, so they keep their color and flavor. When I try to dry herbs in bunches, I usually end up throwing them out because they have turned musty.

Drying herbs in the dehydrator is less trouble, anyway. For the peppermint, I shake or brush off any spiders, and then I tear off and discard the old, tough leaves at the base of the stalks. I run each stalk between my thumb and forefinger to remove the rest of the leaves, which I spread thickly on the dryer trays. I set these trays over any drying fruit, which needs a bit more heat. Then I enjoy the fragrance of peppermint for the next hour and a half, by which time the leaves are thoroughly dry.

I crush the leaves as much as needed to fit them into a tea can, and I stow the can away in the cupboard. Stored this way, peppermint keeps its flavor and aroma for years, if we don’t use it all in the coming winter, as we probably will. I look forward to those chilly, dark nights when I’ll again breathe in the powerful scent of peppermint, in the steam from a hot mug.

Update 2022: As the climate has changed, I now often dry herbs by hanging them in bunches from the ceiling.

Tabbouleh for a Warm Spring Day

During a long, cool spring, like the one we experienced in the Pacific Northwest last year and the one we’re grousing about now, the rare warm day is an occasion for celebration. In summer I often try to satisfy my craving for tabbouleh, the Near Eastern salad of parsley, mint, and bulgur wheat, only to find my parsley gone to seed and my mint old and tough. Spring, not summer, is the best season for tabbouleh. But as a main course, at least, tabbouleh is best on a warm day. So one day recently, when the thermometer neared 70 degrees, I set out to make tabbouleh for lunch, with tender parsley, mint, and lettuce from rain-soaked garden beds.

Tabbouleh (tabouleh, tabouli, tabooley—spell it as you will) is often served with little cupped leaves of romaine lettuce, which serve as scoops for the mixture of wheat and herbs. Although I had no romaine, my butter lettuce was at its best, so I picked some as a bed for the salad. And along with spearmint I picked some lemon balm, a citrus-scented member of the mint family that has become a weed in my garden.

Traditionally tabbouleh is made with fine bulgur (or burghul), which you can find in Lebanese and Turkish markets. Bulgur is wheat that has been parboiled, parched dry, coarsely ground, and then rubbed to remove the outer layers. Covered in water, it quickly swells to a texture perfect for eating. Medium or coarse bulgur, available in many supermarkets, will do well enough for tabbouleh, but it will need longer soaking, and you may want to use hot water rather than cold. (Bulgur is not the same as cracked wheat. If you want to substitute ordinary cracked wheat for bulgur, you’ll have to cook the wheat and then let it cool.)

In summer, tabbouleh is often served with sliced or cubed cucumber, pepper, or tomato, and with grape leaves rather than lettuce. I decorated my tabbouleh this time with home-cured olives and cubes of cotija cheese; feta would have been just as good. My husband’s homemade pinot gris wine made a fine accompaniment.

I never measure ingredients when I make tabbouleh, but here’s an approximate recipe:

2 cups bulgur
1 cup minced onion
Salt to taste
1 1/2 cups minced parsley
1/2 cup minced spearmint, or a mixture of spearmint and lemon balm
1/2 cup lemon juice, or more
1/2 cup olive oil, or more

Put the bulgur into a bowl, cover it with water, and let the bulgur soak for an hour. Drain and press out any excess water. Mix the bulgur with the onions, crushing the onions with your fingers. Add salt to taste. Stir in the herbs, the half-cup lemon juice, and the half-cup olive oil. Taste the salad, and add more salt, lemon juice, or oil, if you like.

Serve the tabbouleh immediately, with lettuce or grape leaves, or chill the salad until you’re ready to eat.