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.
I like using pennyroyal in an Argentine chimichurri. If you are not familiar with it, chimichurri 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 oregano or 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 as well as the 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.
- 1-2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 cup fresh chopped parsley, lightly packed
- 1 cup fresh chopped mint, lightly packed
- 1 small hot chile, minced
- 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.
Traditional method: 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 meat 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 Fahrenheit and get a large saute pan hot on your hottest burner.
Grill the venison, 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 on a cutting board. 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.