This article appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on 15 May 2006.
I didn’t watch the Kentucky Derby nine days ago, but I did drink a Mint Julep. The Mint Julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, and last year we declared it the official drink of our backyard patio in Saskatoon. A Mint Julep is a slow sipping beverage made with Kentucky bourbon, crushed ice and lots of mint. The warmth of the sun, along with the stirring action of a long spoon, slowly melts the ice and produces a refreshing minty drink perfect for long lazy afternoons in the Deep South – or Saskatchewan.
I have a big patch of spearmint in the back alley. By early May, it is poking though the ground like a forest of tiny trees, each purple stem sprouting a topknot of little round leaves. Elsewhere in my garden the chives, thyme, tarragon and sage are also coming up. I love this time of year when those first green herbs herald the start of another growing season. The very first thing I do is grab a pair of scissors, snip off the fresh tender growth and eat it.
I might toss the leaves it into a salad, mix them into scrambled eggs or sprinkle them on a chicken before roasting it in the oven. The other night I baked a Lake Diefenbaker rainbow trout, its cavity stuffed with lemon slices and sprigs of fresh thyme, served with a tarragon-flavoured sauce.
Anyone who has read this column over the course of the past year will know that I am a big champion of Saskatchewan-grown foods. For one year, my husband and I tried to eat nothing but Saskatchewan foods at our own dinner table. It was a challenge, but not as difficult as you might think. There are so many great foods produced here that we ate a rich and varied diet without resorting to Florida peaches or New Zealand lamb.
I was recently asked what foods I got completely sick of during the course of that year. I had to think about that a moment and my answer was – none. If anything, I have some new favourites like pearl barley and sour cherries, chanterelle mushrooms and broccoli sprouts.
(You can read my past columns at HomeForDinner.blogspot.com.)
Now I have a new challenge: Every day, I am going eat something that I grew or picked with my own hand (or my husband’s). Some recent examples include a fruit crumble with wild saskatoon berries, applesauce muffins (apples picked over the back fence) and lentil soup with my homegrown paprika. Which brings us back to the mint. Mint is an ancient culinary herb, woven into Greek myths and extolled by Roman philosophers. In some cultures, it is so integral to the local cuisine that no meal goes by without it.
Habeeb Salloum has written a terrific cookbook about growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1930s called Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead. The book has a whole section on mint. He writes: "This inherited tradition of including mint in our daily menu helped immensely in perking up our meals during the Depression years. With no money to buy other herbs and spices, mint was our top food enhancer."
In 1937, Kentucky General Simon Buckner wrote a marvellous letter to a friends describing the ritual of making a Mint Julep. Here’s how it ends: "Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblet to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods."
Place a heaping teaspoon of sugar in a tall glass. Barely cover with cold water. Add a generous sprig of mint which has been crushed in the hand. Pour in bourbon to your taste. Fill the glass with ice crushed to the consistency of snow. (I use a blender to pulverize the ice.) Sprinkle in a bit of sugar as you spoon in the ice. Top with another sprig of mint. Serve with a spoon so you can stir your drink slowly in the sunshine. I’ve made this with clear soda pop instead of bourbon and it’s good, too.