Mint

Mint

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

Minty things are all around us, from breath-freshening toothpastes and chewing gums to palate-cleansing after-dinner sweets. Yet in western kitchens not nearly enough is made of the humble mint. The most exciting thing that many of us do with mint is to chop and scatter a handful on new season’s potatoes and garden peas, or drown it in vinegar to serve with roast lamb.

Why this reluctance to use one of the most readily available herbs? Mint must surely be the easiest herb in the whole world to grow. Unless vigorously pruned, it runs rampant in most backyards. It is ideally suited to a window box, which contains its aggressive root system better. Even if you have no patch of earth in which to plant a few mint cuttings, these days, neat little bunches of the fresh herb are available from supermarkets pretty much all year round.

In the Levant countries and all around the Mediterranean people buy great armfuls of all kinds of fresh herbs and use them lavishly. Mint is certainly one of the most popular, loved for its cleansing fresh flavour during the long hot summer months. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran freshly picked mint leaves are tossed into mixed-leaf salads. Mint is also a key ingredient in the Lebanese favourites tabbouleh and fattouche. Fresh mint is often eaten with soft white cheeses and fresh bread, perhaps with a dish of olives or a drizzle of olive oil. Small bunches of mint are a classic garnish for all kinds of mezze dishes, in particular the Lebanese national dish, kibbeh nayee. Often fresh mint and other herbs are set on the table in a small jug to be nibbled at during the meal.

In Morocco, fresh mint is essential for the sweet green tea served endlessly throughout the day and night. Although it is traditionally served very sweet, its mintiness makes it surprisingly refreshing. Mint, with its sharp clean taste, is an ideal palate-cleanser, and is frequently partnered with cucumber or yoghurt to make dressings, chilled soups and cooling relishes, which make a terrific foil for hot and spicy dishes. This combination is used throughout the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean (and also in India, where raitas are a popular accompaniment to spicy curries). Fresh mint is also used to add a characteristic sweet flavour to a number of hot savoury dishes – either mixed into rice and meat stuffings, or packed on top of braised dishes such as vine leaves or koussa while cooking.

Mint is one of the few herbs which retain their flavour when dried. All around the Middle East and in countries like Turkey and Greece, many households dry their own mint and use it even more than the fresh herb. Dried mint works particularly well with fresh white cheeses such as fetta or curds, and is often added to flavour little cheese pies. In Cyprus dried mint is used to flavour haloumy, and you can see little flecks in the surrounding brine. Egg dishes are commonly flavoured with a sprinkle of dried mint. A great Lebanese favourite is eggah – a classic flat omelette, coloured bright-green from its addition. The Lebanese version of tzatziki, khiyar bi laban, also uses dried mint rather than fresh.

Selecting and storing mint

If you grow your own mint you will need to pick it constantly to keep it at bay. But this shouldn’t be too burdensome – even if you can’t face eating it at every meal, its fragrance fills the kitchen delightfully. Growing it at home also means you have the luxury of choosing different varieties – not just common old spearmint (or garden mint) but also peppermint (cultivated commercially for pharmaceutical and food flavourings), applemint, lemon mint, pineapple mint and old-fashioned pennyroyal.

If you buy mint in the shops it is likely you will get spearmint, which is the most common variety grown commercially. This is available all year from supermarkets and greengrocers, but it is most abundant in summer. When purchasing, try to avoid bunches with wilted drooping leaves, especially if they appear to be turning black. Don’t wash mint until you are ready to use it, as water makes the leaves blacken and rot more quickly. Store it in the refrigerator and use it within a few days. A sprig of mint in a glass on the window sill won’t last very long, but will make the kitchen smell fresh, sweet and clean for a day or so.

As for dried mint, you can find little packets at the supermarket, which are fine, but drying it yourself is even better. Strip the leaves from the stalks and lay them on greaseproof paper to dry over several days – or place them outside in the sun until completely dry.

Using mint

Wash and dry fresh mint well before using. If you need it chopped, do so at the last minute with a sharp knife – using a blunt knife only bruises it. If you must use mint as a garnish, don’t use timid, little individual leaves, but big, generous bunches.

Recipes in this Chapter

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