I have a thing for wild mints. I seek them out wherever they are, which, in North America, is pretty much everywhere. Over the years I have become a connoisseur, tasting and savoring these little plants like fine wine. Mountain pennyroyal has become my favorite of them all.
All I need tell you about this little mint is its Latin name: Monardella odoratissima, the “most fragrant” monardella. Monardellas are the pennyroyals of the Western United States. There are lots of them, and they all pretty much have the same characteristics:
- Monardellas like dry places. True mints prefer wet places.
- They’re short, not much more than a foot tall or so.
- The base of the stems can get woody, which makes sense since these plants are perennial.
- They tend to have narrow, lance-shaped leaves that are fairy thick.
- Their flower heads are squat and round. If you’ve ever grown bee balm in your garden, they look very similar, although monardella flowers range from white to lavender.
We have another pennyroyal close to home here in Sacramento, Monardella villosa, the coyote mint. It grows in large swaths around the American River Parkway, among other places. I’m a big fan of that one, too.
In case you are wondering, no, this pennyroyal is not related to the European pennyroyal, which has been used as a traditional medicine to promote abortions, and which was featured prominently in a song by Nirvana. That pennyroyal is actually a true mint, Mentha pulegium.
Indians used the various Western pennyroyals for everything from a cold remedy to tea to a cooling summer drink to, well, a love potion. It’s apparently really good for your shakra, too, if you care about such things.
I can smell mountain pennyroyal before I see it. Its aroma is little more savory than, say, spearmint, and a little more resinous than most typical wild mints, which are, for the most part, in the genus mentha. All monardellas — pennyroyals — tend to be more suited to savory foods than true mints. They’re kinda like a native oregano.
So it was with all this in mind that I decided to make pennyroyal the star of a dish by making it into an Argentine chimichurri, which, if you are not familiar with it, is an herby, garlicky sauce typically put over steak. I realize that if you don’t live in the West, you cannot find mountain pennyroyal — use any mint you have available.
Traditional chimichurri has a pretty powerful kick to it. It has a little chile, some raw garlic, and lots of parsley and either oregano or mint. The mountain pennyroyal bridges the gap between oregano and mint for what I think is a pretty perfect sauce for red meats, chicken or fish.
Chimichurri Sauce with Wild Mint and Venison
This recipe is really all about the sauce, so the fact that I use venison here is incidental. Beef would be traditional in Argentina, where chimichurri comes from, but lamb, goat or even pork would be fine, too.
I use wild mint because I can get it easily. You can use whatever mint you want. You can also play with proportions, too. Want more mint? Go for it. Hate mint? Use oregano. Use fresh herbs when you can, but when you can’t find them, dried parsley, chiles and mint work fine.
Makes about 2 cups, enough for 6-8 people.
Prep Time: 10 minutes, plus steeping time
Cook Time: n/a
- 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup fresh chopped parsley, lightly packed
- 1 cup fresh chopped mint, lightly packed
- 1 small hot chile, minced (I use mirasol chiles for this)
- 2-3 tablespoons lime juice
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 1/2 pounds venison backstrap, in one piece
- Vegetable oil
FOOD PROCESSOR METHOD
Put the garlic, herbs, chile, lime juice and a little salt in the bowl of a food processor. Buzz to combine, but do not puree. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil. Add more salt and black pepper to taste. Let steep for an hour or so before serving.
Mince the garlic, chile and herbs by hand and pound a little in a mortar and pestle. Add the lime juice, salt and pepper and then mix in the olive oil slowly by hand, stirring all the while. Let steep for an hour or so before serving.
For the Venison:
- Take the venison out and let it come to room temperature. Pat it dry with a paper towel, then coat with the vegetable oil. Salt it well.
- If you are grilling, get your grill hot and clean the grates. If you are planning on pan-roasting, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and get a large saute pan hot on your hottest burner.
- Grill the venison over direct heat, turning occasionally until it is medium-rare, or however you like it; this should take about 10-15 minutes. If you are pan-roasting, brown the outside of the venison backstrap in the saute pan, then put the whole pan into the oven. Roast for about 8 minutes for rare. Use the finger test for doneness as your guide.
- Let the venison rest, loosely tented under foil. Right before you slice and serve it, Pour any accumulated juices into the chimichurri. Pour the chimichurri over the sliced venison and serve at once.