Mint, fine with Pepsi, better yet with pea soup
Of course it figures that the one type of mint I really, really want to grow is possibly the only type of mint that is really, really fussy. I’m not talking about your garden-variety spearmint/peppermint/ chocolate mint plants, the kind that can overpower almost any of the weeds in a flowerbed (I use mint as groundcover under my peonies). I’m talking about a distant cousin called perilla, known to fans of Japanese food as the shiso or plum leaf. I’m not clear on why it’s called plum leaf when it’s actually a type of mint. And I’m not sure why it’s a type of mint if it’s so hard to grow.Most types of mint are so vigorous that even I can grow them from a cutting (and that’s saying something). Shiso has proved more difficult. I’ve tried to grow it from seeds and have failed several times (which isn’t all that surprising, since I usually don’t have much success with seeds). This year, I enlisted some help, in the form of my friend and former neighbor, Jimmy Lipton. Jimmy took one look at the seeds I ordered from the Internet and politely filed them away in the trash. He ordered some sturdier seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and, with grow lights, peat pots and lots of tender loving care, he coaxed a dozen little plants to come to life from as many little seeds. I put them in my garden today, and am hoping they will turn into big, healthy plants that will provide me with a sharp-edged green that can enliven my salads (they’re especially good when paired with tomatoes), pep up platters full of asparagus and of course add bite to the wonderful Japanese sushi roll known as umejisho (rice, pickled Japanese plums, soy-sauce enhanced dried Bonito fish and shiso leaf, all wrapped in a nice crisp sheet of black nori seaweed). I love shiso for its flavor, which is almost indescribable, and for the cats-tongue rasp of the surface of the leaves. Shiso also has medicinal qualities and is used in ancient Chinese medicine to stimulate the immune system.Unfortunately, no shiso leaves were available for the photo for this week’s column; and since no one up here sells shiso leaves, it seems unfair to devote the whole column to them. All the other types of mint are now super-abundant, in backyard gardens and at farmstands and markets. Buy a bunch of it to throw in cold drinks. A simple club soda is way better with even a single sprig of mint. If you live in Japan, or are planning a visit there soon, you can sample a shiso-flavored Pepsi. And then of course there are mojitos, which can help you ingest loads and loads of mint (along with a big dose of rum and a fair amount of sugar). Mint has surprisingly significant health benefits, although probably not enough to offset the impact of a sugar-laced cocktail. It is believed to help your digestion. It’s supposed to be a really good antiseptic; not sure if that means you can crush leaves on an open wound when you’re out in the woods, to avoid infection. I think that’s one of the questions whose answer changes depending on whom you ask.Mint is also a diuretic, and can help reduce water retention. But if you do have multiple mojitos over the Memorial Day weekend, be sure to replenish the fluids in your body. Speaking of gardens, as we were, most serious backyard farmers of my acquaintance have planted their peas and are seeing sprouts. Whether or not you’ve planted some peas, do go out and buy some mint plants. By the time peas are at farmstands and markets, or by the time your peas have reached the edible stage, you should have more than enough mint to complete this recipe.Mint, pea and leek soupAdapted from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa at Home”Serves six2 tablespoons unsalted butter; 2 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts; 1 cup chopped shallots; 4 cups chicken stock; 5 cups freshly shelled peas or two (10-ounce) packages frozen peas; 2/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, loosely packed; 2 teaspoons coarse salt; 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper; 1/2 cup Greek yogurt Heat the butter in a large saucepan, add the leeks and shallot, and cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until the shallots are tender. Add the chicken stock, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the peas and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the peas are tender. (Frozen peas will take only 3 minutes.) Remove from the heat and add the mint, salt and pepper.Place a cup of soup in a blender, secure the lid on top and purée on low speed. With the blender still running, open the venthole in the lid and slowly add more soup until the blender is three-quarters full. Pour the soup into a large bowl. Repeat the blending process until all the soup is puréed. Whisk in the Greek yogurt and taste for seasoning. Serve hot.