A generation or two ago, an elegant southern bride's trousseau might include a set of engraved silver julep cups, for proper presentation of that most necessary Kentucky Derby beverage, the mint julep. Even more essential than the proper container was the vital ingredient, fresh mint, preferably genuine ‘Kentucky Colonel' spearmint. Other harsher varieties do no favors to the flavor of this traditional beverage, and please don't even consider making it with peppermint.
Although wanting to make genuine juleps inspired our original purchase of ‘Kentucky Colonel', I found that this classic variety had many uses. For starters, there's a definite distinction between the flavor of spearmint and that of peppermint. Think of the difference between green ("cool mint") and blue ("peppermint") types of toothpaste, or just go to a local garden center and start sniffing the different mints. I like peppermint in hot tea, but for most culinary uses I prefer spearmint.
Middle-eastern recipes such as tabbuleh use fresh minced spearmint. My father taught me a wonderful recipe for grilled lamb-burgers: To one pound of ground lamb, add ¼ cup minced fresh ‘Kentucky Colonel' spearmint leaves, 1/3 c. minced sweet onion, and 1 tablespoon crushed garlic. I make a mint-onion relish with a similar flavor (recipe follows). This would also be my first choice variety for use in making mint-apple jelly.
‘KYC' Spearmint is one of my favorites for iced tea. I often keep a little vase of cuttings on the kitchen counter, so people can add a few leaves to the bottom of their glass. After a few days, if any cuttings remain, I often find that they've grown roots and can be potted up if somebody wants a new little plant. Dropping ice cubes on top of the leaves bruises them slightly so they release their wonderful flavor. Mint even makes a glass of ice water taste special!
In my garden, ‘Kentucky Colonel' seems to be a bit better behaved than other mints. I've let it grow throughout one of my landscaping beds, and although it spreads, it's not such a thug that it chokes out other plants. As an added benefit, rabbits completely ignore all plants in this bed - even when I planted a row of snow peas, a bunny delicacy. I've cut armfuls of mint leaves to chop and scatter on my vegetable garden, where the scent also seems to deter marauding rabbits and other varmints.
Like all mints, ‘Kentucky Colonel' is easy to propagate. It won't come true from seed, so vegetative propagation is the way to go. Stem cuttings root readily in water and can be potted up when the roots are ¼ to 1 inch long. Any little division or even a little piece of root can be potted up to produce a new plant. Like most mints, ‘KYC' sends out long underground stolons, which can be pulled up and transplanted. Bury them just an inch or two under the surface, and new shoots will pop up all along their length. If you don't have an area where you can let it run, ‘KYC' spearmint can be contained in a pot.
Whether you already have a dozen kinds or have never grown mint before, ‘Kentucky Colonel' Spearmint is one variety of mint I hope you'll try!
The 135th "Run for the Roses" is coming up this Saturday, May 2, 2009. Click on the Kentucky Derby website for more information, and be sure to watch with a cold, minty beverage at hand.
HOW TO MIX A GREAT MINT JULEP
Some say a proper mint julep is made with mint-infused simple syrup, bourbon, and crushed ice, nothing more. Others argue for the use of different sugars, specific varieties of mint, or particular brands of bourbon whiskey. One Derby Day, we looked up several recipes online and in the paper and came up with this version, using what we had in the house. Lacking classic silver julep cups, we mixed ours in tall Collins glasses.
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.
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