I love nepitella! Also known as Lesser Calamint, or, in Latin as calamintha nepeta, this herb grows wild in Italy, especially in Tuscany and Umbria, as well as in other parts of Europe and North Africa. It tastes like a cross between mint and oregano. Although the mint is the primary flavor it gains a warmth and fullness from the oregano flavor, thus it not only brightens a dish but adds richness as well. It is a beautiful albeit petite plant, growing about twelve to eighteen inches in height and only about twelve inches in width. Small, lavender/pink flowers appear before it goes to seed. Watch Fabio Trabocchi's video to what it looks like and how to use it.
It is traditionally matched with mushrooms as well as artichokes but I use it with so many different ingredients; indeed, wherever I could use mint and/or oregano, I usually opt for the nepitella. I found a website that reports that in Italy a sprig of nepitella is often packaged with mushrooms. Although this website is Henry's Farm, I could only find the information about nepitella through a google search. I've often used this and other mints in a tea for an upset stomach, but I guess not everyone should feel free to use nepitella this way, because, as Rosalind Creasy reports in her book, The Edible Herb Garden, "...evidence indicates that nepitella should be avoided by [a] pregnant woman."
It's supposed to withstand cold to almost zero degrees, but it has survived my north Idaho wintry days of at lest ten degrees below freezing. It doesn't seed itself like it does in Italy, and I'm not sure why. However, it does seem happy to be growing in my sandy, glacial silt soil. And, whether rainy or dry, it seems to thrive year in and year out.
I used my nepitella yesterday in a white bean salad that I brought to my friends' annual July 4th celebration on the Moyie River. Strangely for north Idaho, it was cold and rainy, so instead of cold greens, I wanted to bring something a bit hardier, but still a salad. So I decided to make an Italian style white bean salad. I had some canned white beans so I could be somewhat lazy and use them to make one of my favorite dishes.
I sauteed some onion in olive oil with some salt, then added garlic and cut up cherry tomatoes. After the tomatoes just began to break, I added the beans, stirred well, and removed from the heat. Then I added my favorite herb, nepitella. Finally, after the beans came to room temperature, I added freshly squeezed lemon juice and some chiffonaded spinach from my garden. It was so yummy! And the ingredient that really made it special was the nepitella.