Mints, spices
add to the holidays

Grow your own herbs to enjoy
this holiday season



November 22, 2007
Have you ever thought about what makes tasty holiday cooking?

Mints are interesting herbs to use for the holidays, and they are easy to grow in moist, well-drained, alkaline soil rich in nutrients.

The mint plant (mentha) is a hardy herbaceous perennial that varies in height between 1 inch and 3 feet. Mints can grow in partial shade or in the sun. They can even grow indoors on a bright windowsill, and will root if left in a vase in water for a length of time. Some varieties do well as ground covers. However, be well aware that mints are extremely invasive and very hard to get rid of once planted in open soil.


There are more than 600 types of mint, so the best way to select a good plant is by nose rather than by name. Rub your fingers over the leaves and if you like the smell, that plant is good for you.

Harvest the sprigs and make your own green tea with mints by boiling water and letting the leaves steep for about 15 minutes. Fresh leaves added to new potatoes, fruit salads, drinks and punches give these a delightful flavor.


The best-known mints used in recipes are spearmints and peppermints.

Spearmint varieties include Moroccan spearmint (M.spicata) which has closely set, toothed, bright green leaves with a clean spearmint flavor, and red raripila spearmint (M. raripila ruba) with sweet spearmint flavor, purple stems and flowers born late in summer.

Other varieties include curly mint (M.spicata Crispii) with crinkled, deep green leaves and an apple scent, and crinkle-leafed black peppermint (M.xp.Crispa) with vibrant green leaves and a strong peppermint scent.

There are also mints that have a citrus or apple smell. Go to your local nursery and smell them all.


Some of the best-known holiday spices are cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. And while no spice shelf is complete without allspice and vanilla, I will focus on the others here.

Cinnamon and its cousin, cassia, are both members of the Lauraceae family. Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of the branches of cinnamomum zeylanicum rolled into sticks.

Cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon, is the thicker, coarser bark of a small tree called cinnamomum cassia. Although they have a similar aroma and flavor and in many countries are treated as one, there is a difference in taste. True cinnamon has a softer, sweeter taste that goes well with sweet dishes such as creams, custards, fruits and chocolate. Cassia has a stronger taste and is more used in savory dishes such as stuffed eggplants or lamb stew and in Indian cuisine.

Cinnamon and cassia grow in the hot wet tropics. They are laurel-like trees that grow up to 10 feet. The bark, leaves and the oval, bluish fruit are all fragrant.

Cloves are the dried unopened flower buds of the clove tree, a tender evergreen tree from the tropics. The tree reaches 30 feet or higher and needs well-drained acidic soil in shade. It needs protection from the wind.

Although cloves are found in most kitchens in the West, this is not a spice for everyday use, since its flavor is powerful and penetrating. It is an important ingredient in Dutch windmill cookies and in Christmas puddings.

An attractive way to spread their smell is to make some holes in an orange and stick the clove in. Put a nice ribbon around the orange, hang it somewhere, and you have a nice holiday decoration with a wonderful smell.

Nutmeg is the brown kernel enclosed in a shiny brown seed coat, surrounded by crimson lace-like mace of the peach-like fruit of the nutmeg tree (myristica fragrans). It is a tall tropical evergreen tree that can grow to about 33 feet. It takes 10 to 15 years to mature, but then it produces 1,500 to 2,000 nutmegs per year for about 70 years. Only the female trees bear fruits. The tree can be found in the Moluccas, New Guinea, the West Indies and Sri Lanka.

Good quality nutmeg kernels should exude a little oil when pressed with the thumb. Buy the whole nutmegs and grade as required to get the fresh flavor. Store the nutmeg in an airtight container. Nutmeg is commonly used in sweet puddings, custards and cakes. Try it also in puréed potatoes or boiled sprouts and green beans. In Italy it is used in spinach stuffings for tortellini and ravioli. In France it is added to béchamel sauce.

Mints and spices add to holiday cooking wherever you may be the holidays this season, so enjoy!

Some holiday ideas ;

Mint Tea

4 tea bags

1/3 cup of orange juice

8-10 sprigs mint

1 3/4 cup of sugar

1 quart boiling water

3 cups hot water

2/3 cup lemon juice

Put tea bags, mint and boiling water in a covered container. Let set for 15 minutes. Mix all other ingredients in another container. Mix all together, serve over ice. Yields 1/2 gallon.

Peppermint Syrup

Syrup can be diluted for drinks, poured over ice creams and used as a base for jellies and sorbets.

4 cups loosely packed peppermint leaves

White sugar

Green food coloring (optional)

Place the leaves in a saucepan with just enough water to cover. Simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the liquid for an hour. For each cup of liquid, add 6 oz. sugar. Place the mixture in a pan and simmer for 15 minutes. Add food coloring if you want to use it. Bottle, label and date. Alternatively, freeze in convenient portions.

Dutch Windmill Cookies

This is a typical winter treat in The Netherlands. There is no need to fix it yourself if there as the choices in the stores are overwhelming. But if you do want that smell of fresh windmill cookies in your house, you can use premixed "windmill cookie spices". However when you travel abroad like I do when I go home for the holidays, you mix the spices yourself and start baking.

2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup light brown sugar (packed)

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

5 ounces (1 1/4 stick) unsalted

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

butter, softened

1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves and nutmeg

3 tablespoons cold water

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1 dash cayenne pepper

Sift flour, baking soda, spices and salt into large mixing bowl. Add sugars and use electric mixer to beat until just combined. Add butter and blend until mixture is crumbly. Blend in water and mix until ingredients come together in a cohesive ball. Divide dough in half and roll each portion between two sheets of waxed paper to form a circle 12 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Leaving the dough circles between the waxed paper, transfer to a baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days; or freeze, well wrapped, up to a month. Cut shapes from the chilled dough circles (wooden molds with windmill shapes are used in the Netherlands). Place in 300-degree oven for 20 minutes. Let cool off and serve. Makes about 3 to 4 dozen, depending on the size of cutter or molds.


Blend cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg with allspice to turn a regular wine into glühwein, a mull red wine served warm in Germany, Austria and parts of Switzerland often enjoyed by the Dutch after a day of skiing. Make a dry mix of 6 cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons each of ground cloves and cinnamon, 1 tablespoon of ground allspice, and 3/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg. Store in an airtight container. To serve two glasses of glühwein, boil 1/2 cup of water with 2 teaspoons of the dried ingredients, reduce heat and add 1 cup of red wine. Let it warm up, but do not boil. Serve.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas Cooperative Extension-Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, Texas 77901; or, or comment on this column at