Okay you muddlers, May is the beginning of mint season here in the Pacific Northwest. Kentucky Derby Day, the first Saturday in May, can be a little early especially if it’s been cool but we can usually scrounge up enough for a couple of juleps. In case you’re wondering, a muddler is the tool a bartender uses to gently crush leaves or fruit to release their juices and flavor. It’s key for all sorts of cool refreshing drinks including the mint julep or mojito — I have our recipes for both so check them out. Muddling requires a light touch and sugar is often incorporated at the same time. If you don’t have a muddler, try the end of a wooden spoon handle.
We created this julep for our friend Joan, a grower of great mint who prefers vodka to bourbon and it’s actually quite delicious.
Handful of fresh mint leaves plus a sprig for garnish
1/2 t sugar (we use Demerara)
2 oz. vodka
Place mint leaves and sugar in bottom of a chilled glass. Muddle gently. Add 1 oz. vodka and leave it for a few minutes to infuse while you crush ice.
Fill glass with crushed ice. Pour 2nd oz. vodka over ice and pack it down with the back of a spoon. As ice melts and mixes with vodka, the liquid will almost reach the top of the ice.
Refill glass to the top with more crushed ice, pack down again and garnish with a sprig of mint.
I can’t wait until we can make this for Joan. I hope she’ll like as much as I do.
Mint grows well in our climate, sometimes a little too well. It can be greedy and take over other less vigorous plants so give it plenty of space or plant it in a large pot. It prefers plenty of water but can be drought tolerant. At least a half a day of sunshine is ideal but mine is happy with less in a shadier spot. My memories of mint growing up are that it grew well under a leaky outdoor faucet. Hopefully, you don’t have one but positioning it near a downspout can serve the same purpose. There are hundreds of varieties and I’m not even sure what ours is since it came with our house but the most common for use in the kitchen is spearmint. The farmers market and nurseries are loaded with plants now so even if you don’t have a garden, plant a pot of mint and use it often. It’s extremely versatile and works in all kinds of drinks and dishes, both sweet and savory, alcoholic and non-alcoholic. If you have kids around, let them pinch the tender new leaves, helping the plant become bushier and providing a little snack or an aromatic addition to potions of any description.
Even if you’re a teetotaler, fresh mint makes a refreshing tea, either on it’s own, added as a garnish to your favorite tea or in combination with other herbs from the garden. A sprig of tarragon, lavender, lemon verbena, lemon balm and even rosemary can make an excellent friend for your mint in a pot of tea. You can use a french press coffee pot to make a batch of mint tea and forgo the straining. Just load up your pot with mint, pour in hot water, let it steep for at least 10 minutes and then serve hot or over ice, sweetened or not. Take it outdoors and sit and sip in that lovely spot you’ve created in your garden but rarely take the time to enjoy.
For an adults-only dessert, try this lusciously creamy Mint Julep Panna Cotta from my latest favorite Southern cookbook, The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern, which by the way was nominated for the prestigious 2010 James Beard Award in the American Cooking category. Once I started taking bites for this photograph, I couldn’t stop — take a bite, take a photo and so on… I had to keep telling myself that eating this dessert didn’t really count as drinking before noon — most of the bourbon is boiled off but the intense flavor remains. It’s a definite winner in my book — simply delicious.
Mint Julep Panna Cotta (6 individual servings)
1/2 cup bourbon ( I used Rebel Yell)
3/4 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed fresh mint leaves removed from the stem
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise or 1 t vanilla extract
1 1/2 t unflavored gelatin powder (like Knox gelatin)
Place bourbon in a small saucepan and set over medium heat. Boil for a minute or two until reduced by half. Set aside.
Combine milk, cream, sugar and mint leaves in a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add to the pan along with the pod. (If using vanilla extract, you’ll add later). Set over low heat and slowly bring just to a boil, stirring occasionally. This will take about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile , place 3 T water in a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin over it. Set it aside for 10 minutes to soften and absorb the water.
Pour a little vegetable oil onto a paper towel and use to lightly but completely coat 6 small (6 ounce) ramekins
When the milk begins to boil, remove from the heat and add the gelatin, stirring until dissolved. Add the bourbon (and vanilla extract if using), then pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher with a spout.
Divide the liquid among the oiled ramekins. Allow to cool for several minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set, up to 2 days.
You can serve the panna cotta in the ramekins or unmold them by slipping a thin knife around the edge to loosen the custard. Dip the bottom of the ramekin in hot water for a few seconds. Pat the ramekin dry, place a plate on top, then invert. If it won’t come out, give the ramekin a tap or set in hot water again.
Garnish with fresh mint leaves and serve immediately.
Taken from an adaptation of the Lee Bros. recipe by Imbibe magazine — a great source for seasonal cocktails.
That’s the beauty of individual servings, you’re supposed to eat the whole thing.