June 24, 2022
When mint comes into its own
Come June, mint is popping up full force in my garden. That is okay, because it comes in handy for cocktails on the patio and for fruit and vegetable salads. It is wonderful to go out and snip a few fresh leaves as needed. Mint is more useful than as a mere garnish. In the Middle East it is prominent in a number of salads and dishes such as tabbouleh, fattoush and tzatziki. It also dries well, maintaining its intensity so that its flavor can be tapped all year long. I will write more about some of these herb salads in the coming months, but my focus today is on three uncomplicated mint condiments: Mint simple syrup, classic mint sauce and a middle eastern mint oil.
There are many varieties of mint, but the best known and locally available culinary varieties are spearmint and peppermint. The recipes that follow use spearmint, which is the variety growing in my garden. (1)
Mint Rich Simple syrup
Beloved by bartenders and chefs because they evenly disperse sweetness throughout liquids irrespective of temperature, simple syrups are easy to make and lend themselves to a myriad of flavorings. Standard simple syrup is made using a 1:1 volume ratio of sugar to water. A rich syrup uses a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water, which makes it more viscous (syrupy). To make a rich mint syrup add 1.5 cups of sugar and 3/4 cup water to a saucepan and bring to a slow boil. Add in a large bunch of fresh leafy mint stems, leaves on, to the pot to infuse (both stems and leaves carry the intense mint flavor). (2) Stir gently to ensure the mint is fully covered and the sugar dissolves. After the syrup has cooked for a minute or two and the sugar has fully dissolved, turn off the heat and let the mint steep in the hot liquid. After about 30 minutes when the syrup is fully cooled, strain out the mint and store the syrup in a glass bottle or jar in the fridge. The syrup can be stored up to a month refrigerated, if it lasts that long!
Once you have made a bottle you will find yourself using it in all kinds of ways:
Classic mint sauce
Elisabeth Ayrton, writing in The Cookery of England, observed that the classic vinegar—based mint sauce as we know it today dates back at least to medieval times where it is described as ‘Eigre-douce’ (sour-sweet) in a manuscript dating from the era of Edward I (1272-1307). To made the sauce, take a good-sized handful of clean fresh mint leaves, chop them finely (about 1-2 tbsps when chopped), let them macerate in a small serving bowl with the addition of 2-3 teaspoons of sugar (to taste) so that the sugar softens and starts to dissolve, then add 3-4 tbsps of good quality white or red wine vinegar and stir well. Let the sauce steep for at least an hour before serving. The finished sauce should be thick with the finely chopped mint, (like a sweet and sour salsa). English cooks claim this is the only real sauce to serve with roast lamb, but it can also be an accompaniment to other roast meats including pork, veal or chicken, and is great as a sauce for such meats when grilled outdoors in the summer.
Naomi Duguid, in Taste of Persia, provides a wonderfully simple recipe for mint oil using dried mint. She notes that given its intensity, in Persian cuisine the dried herb is “not a second-best version of the fresh herb but a precious ingredient in it own right.”
Drying mint. If you have an abundance of mint in your garden you can dry some for use anytime. Cut several good length stems of leafy mint and rinse them in cool water. Shake off the excess and dry on clean kitchen towels for a few minutes. You can then air dry the herbs in the traditional manner by tying the stem ends together and hanging the bunch from the stem ends in a dry area out of direct sunlight for several weeks until thoroughly dry, or use a raised cooling rack to tray dry them— either way the goal is to ensure good air circulation. The herbs can also be dried more quickly using a microwave: Lay the herbs on a sheet of paper towel or microwave safe dish and dry for several minutes on the medium setting. The total time will vary depending on the wattage of your oven and the volume and moisture content of the herbs, so some experimentation will be necessary. (4) Start checking the herbs after 60 seconds or so, and continue at 30 to 45 second intervals so you don’t cook the leaves. Remove when they are dry, but still green, and can be crumbled. Whatever your drying method, when the mint is thoroughly dried, strip the leaves off the stems. Crumble the leaves and store in an airtight jar.
To make the oil you will need about 1/4 cup of olive oil or clarified butter/ghee (which is essentially melted butter with the milk solids strained off to prevent them burning at a lower temperature), and an equal volume of dried mint. Heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the oil or clarified butter. When the oil is hot add the crumbled mint, rubbing it through your fingers to crush it as you toss it into the pan. Stir the oil to fully integrate and cover the mint. Use immediately.
This is brilliant as a finishing sauce for any and all varieties of garden beans, for English, sugar snap or snow peas, and for carrots. It also works well drizzled on chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, or other salads, and mixed with lime juice for a summery vinaigrette. Or mix it into Greek-style yoghurt for a sauce for grilled meats, shrimp and for vegetables, and drizzle it over cold summer vegetable soups to add some brightness just before serving. Leftovers can be stored refrigerated in a glass jar for several days, but will lose its intensity over time.
Today’s ovens are can be more powerful, so some caution is necessary.
Ayrton, Elisabeth, The Cookery of England (being a Collection of Recipes for Traditional Dishes of All Kinds from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day, with Notes on their Social and Culinary Background), Penguin Books edition, 1977 Duguid, Naomi, Taste of Persia, 2016, Artisan Press
Miller, Amy Bess and Fuller, Persis, The Best of Shaker Cooking, 1985, Hancock Shaker Village
Information on drying herbs: