WORLD TOUR WITH MINT
Bangkok, 11th October 2015
A little while back, my wife, bored with the usual round of cooking in the tiny, stuffy, hot kitchen of our apartment and longing to spice things up a bit with some change, espied a fresh herb in the vegetable section of our local supermarket which turned out to be mint. She brought it back and for several weeks now, we have been trying chicken à la mint, pork à la mint, fresh mint in green salad, and – the subject of this post – mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta.
Let me interject here that a basic difference between me and my wife is that she is adventurous, ready to try new things, and I am timorous, fearful of the new and comfortable with the true and the tried. This is as true for food as it is for any other sphere of life. I therefore approached these experiments in our usual cuisine with some diffidence if not suspicion. Actually, apart from the fresh mint in green salad, which I forcefully suggested we not try again, it worked rather well. In the case of mint in tomato-based sauce for pasta, it worked really well. The mint added a sweet overtone to the acidity of the tomato which did wonders to the palate. I have graciously allowed this variation on a theme to be added to our culinary repertoire. It’s very easy to prepare, by the way: replace basil leaves with mint, et voilà! (or you can just add the mint to the basil leaves)
A quick whip around the internet shows me that my wife is not the only one to have stumbled onto this use of mint. Martha Stewart, no less, offers a recipe where the tomato sauce contains mint. I throw in a picture from another recipe – readers are going to have to take it on faith that the little green bits in the sauce are finely chopped mint leaves.
One thread in these posts of mine has been to salute the humbler ingredients in our food, those which never get much publicity but are actually the ones that make each of our dishes so special. I’ve written on lemongrass recently, and capers and anise a while back (and, at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve written very disapprovingly about the use of hot spices). So I will use this occasion to also sing the praises of mint, reviewing some of its better uses in food.
As I usually do, I began surfing around the internet to see what I could find. I was surprised to not come across a huge use of mint, at least in my part of Europe (Western Europe, to use the Cold War parlance). Of course, there is that most English of dishes, mint sauce, a wonderful, wonderful sauce to put on lamb chops. But this dish has already been the subject (or one of the subjects) of a previous post, in which I sing the praises of the sweet-and-salt combination, so I don’t feel I can go on and on about it again. I will leave readers to refer to that post and move on – but not before throwing in a picture of mint sauce with lamb chops.
In my electronic wanderings, I stumbled across the following dish, which also seems incredibly English – at least, it involves peas, and since peas are in my mind as English as Big Ben or HM the Queen (one of the veggies in every meat and two veggies which I had in my youth seemed to be peas), I include it. We are talking of pea soup with mint (I give thumbnail recipes for this and other dishes that I mention at the end of the post).
I have a feeling that this soup would be good chilled, like gazpacho.
I also want to add here another dish that I came across as I went around raising electronic rocks to see what was hidden below them. It’s actually an eggplant dish from 16th Century Italy. I add it because I think it’s kind of cool to look at what our ancestors were eating. But it’s also an intriguing dish because it looks to be an ancestor of the modern dish we know as eggplant parmigiana. The big difference between the two is the absence of a tomato-based sauce in the old recipe. I suppose this difference reflects the fact that tomatoes were not yet current in Italian cuisine in the 16th Century. Instead, a mix of herbs (mint, sweet marjoram, salad Burnet, parsley, fresh fennel tips), crushed garlic, a couple of spices (cinnamon and cloves), pepper, and salt, are spread over the eggplant, and the whole is splashed with verjuice (I will let readers look that one up, as I had to) and sprinkled with sugar. Then, like eggplant parmigiana, cheese is spread over the whole. Here’s what it looks like, and the thumbnail recipe is at the end.
It was at this point that luck came to the rescue. As I was surfing disconsolately around the internet, I came across an interesting article entitled “Mints in Ethnic Cuisines”, written by two ladies from Texas, Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay. I am indebted to them for much of what follows. It was they, for instance, who taught me that Greek cuisine bucks the (modern?) European trend of using little mint. It seems that Greeks use mint with wild abandon in their cuisine. The two authors mention several dishes in particular: keftedes meatballs, the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce, the bean stew gigantes plaki, dolmas (stuffed grape vine leaves), hortopita, which is a vegetable and rice pie; even that best known of Greek dishes, moussaka, has mint in it! I give thumbnail recipes of all these dishes at the end, but here I will only post pictures of keftedes meatballs
which can be served with the yoghurt-based tzatziki sauce as a dip
I chose to put pictures of these two dishes with the hope that my wife (and I) can try to make them …
I now leave Europe behind, skimming over the waves of the Aegean Sea to the land of Lebanon, because I want to raise a cheer for that most Lebanese of dishes, tabouleh.
I have very fond memories of eating tabouleh in Beijing – yes, Beijing. There was a little Lebanese restaurant down the road from where we lived, run by a small, tubby Lebanese man with a twinkle in his eye. When Spring came rolling round, it was incredibly pleasant for my wife and I to sit outside the restaurant, under the barely budding trees, in the tepid heat of the midday sun, slowly working our way through a plate of tabouleh. I must say, though, I’m a little surprised that not only chopped parsley but also chopped mint is added. I’m not sure that our tubby Lebanese restaurateur was putting mint in his tabouleh. I will need to hunt down a restaurant which serves tabouleh with both mint and parsley. While I’m at it, I will also see if it serves Arab or Middle-East salad.
I now want to arc over to the Indian subcontinent, but not before pausing for a minute in modern-day Iraq. I’m actually stopping here for Iraq’s Babylonian past. Like any self-respecting university, Yale University has a collection of cuneiform tablets, some of which, like this one, list recipes.
These have been translated by a Frenchman, Jean Botéro (this immediately makes me think of the Egyptologist, Professor Philémon Siclone, in the Tintin album “Les Cigares du Pharaön”
but I digress).
One of these, Recipe XXIII, contains mint, to whit: “Leg (of mutton) (?) meat is used. Prepare water; [add] fat […] samidu, coriander (?), cumin (?), and kanašû. Assemble (all the ingredients in the cooking vessel) and sprinkle with crushed garlic. (After cooking,) blend into the pot šuhutinnû and mint […]” As you can see, words are missing, the translation of some of the ingredients is unknown, and to make matters worse the recipe is exceedingly brief compared to our modern ones, leaving much to the skill – and imagination – of the cook. Nevertheless, Laura Kelley and a band of hardy cooks have been piecing together these telegraphic recipes from 4,000 years ago and trying them out. Many of the results are described on the web site “The Silk Road Gourmet” I post here the picture of a modern take on Recipe XXIII, after someone concluded that šuhutinnû is probably carrot or possibly parsnip, and samidu is barley:
I have added the modern version of the recipe to the thumbnail recipes below, for those who might want to try connecting gastronomically with our remote Babylonian ancestors.
After that pit stop in the fertile crescent, we go on to the Indian subcontinent, the land of chutneys – not so much the fruit-based chutneys which the colonial Brits brought back to the UK, but more vegetable-based chutneys. Here is a chutney, mint-coriander chutney, where mint takes pride of place.
One of the recipes I perused helpfully informs the reader that this chutney can be served with pakoras, samosas, chaat, chole, or even potato chips.
This chutney allows me to segue smoothly into another popular dish from that part of the world, raita, a cold yogurt condiment served to cut the heat of spicy dishes. And here I will throw in a picture of a cucumber-mint raita (with thumbnail recipe at the end).
Being based on yoghurt (or strictly speaking curds) and looking at how raitas are made, I have to think that they are (perhaps not so) distant cousins of the Greek tzatziki (which itself is part of a broader family of yoghurt-based dishes to be found from the Balkans to the Caucasus). Maybe one day I should write a post on yoghurt …
After this, I soar over the Bay of Bengal back to Thailand. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay say that mint is a very popular ingredient in Thai cuisine and in South-East Asian cuisine more generally. Certainly, I recently had a taste of a common use of mint here, where it joins a number of fresh vegetables being served as a side dish to be added to noodle dishes or just eaten along with other main dishes.
We were saying bye-bye to a colleague and had lunch together in the office. The food was ordered from outside. My Thai colleagues informed me that most of the dishes I was trying were from the north of the country. I found it interesting to eat fresh mint leaves with some of the spicier dishes. This side dish of fresh vegetables is also common in Vietnam, and I suspect throughout South-East Asia.
I’ll finish with a dish from Thailand, yam nang mu (pork skin salad). This is actually one of many Thai “salads” in which various cuts of meat or offal are sliced small, seasoned with spicy/sour/sweet sauces, and then mixed with herbs of one variety or another. In this particular case, you season boiled, defatted pork skin (there is a cousin to this dish using pig’s ears) with fish and shrimp sauce, lime juice, sugar, and mix it all with a large amount of mint leaves, some lemongrass, some roasted rice, and a number of other ingredients (thumbnail recipe at the end).
Well, that brings me to the end of my world tour following the trace of mint. There are a lot of dishes which use mint that I’ve not mentioned. I’ve also not touched on the use mint in drinks, for instance Moroccan mint tea with its spectacular pouring technique
or the somewhat more alcoholic mint julep, a favourite of the Kentucky Derby.
But I’ll leave these for another day. Right now, my wife is looking at her watch and at the door. Time to go.
Pea and mint soup: Soften some onions in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add peas, reduce heat, and simmer gently until tender. Add chopped mint leaves (and parsley if you want). Add more broth. Purée in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
Pomi sdegnosi, or braised eggplant: Slice the eggplant lengthwise and let them steep in in lukewarm water for 30 minutes. Rinse. Submerge the eggplant slices in boiling water for about 8 minutes. Remove and drain. Dredge the eggplant slices in flour and layer the bottom of an oiled dish. Chop all of the herbs – fresh mint, marjoram, parsley, salad Burnet, fennel tips – and mix them with minced garlic, spices – cinnamon, cloves, pepper – salt, sugar, and verjuice (for which lemon juice can be substituted). Cover the eggplant with breadcrumbs, drizzle with olive oil, cover with herb/spice mixture and then with provatura cheese (mozzarella, another pulled cheese, can be substituted). Repeat for each layer of eggplant. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. (Adapted from http://atasteofhistorywithjoycewhite.blogspot.com/2014/08/to-braise-eggplant-historic-food.html)
Keftedes: Combine ground beef, bread dunked in milk, minced onion, minced garlic, finely chopped mint and oregano, some vinegar, some beaten eggs, a small amount of grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and mix well. Roll the mixture into balls. Dust the balls with flour. Put them in hot oil in a pan. Brown on all sides.
Tzatziki: Peel cucumbers and dice. To draw out their water, sprinkle them with salt and let them sit for 30 minutes. Drain well. Put them in a blender, along with minced garlic, some lemon juice, some chopped mint (and some chopped dill if you wish), and a little ground black pepper. Process until well blended. Stir the result into Greek yogurt. Salt to taste. Let it stand for at least two hours before serving so flavours can blend.
Gigantes Plaki: Soak gigantes beans (giant butter beans) overnight. Cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are just tender. In parallel, gently soften chopped onions and garlic for a few minutes. Then stir in some sweet paprika, tinned tomatoes, 100ml water. Salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer for half an hour. Stir in sea kale or dandelion leaves (or chard as an alternative). Mix the cooked beans with the sauce, adding some more olive oil and chopped mint and parsley. Transfer to a casserole pan, and bake for half an hour or so until the beans are tender and the sauce thickened and bubbling. Can be served hot, warm or at room temperature.
Dolmas: In a little broth, mix ground beef and lamb with uncooked rice, minced onion and garlic, some pine nuts, chopped mint and parsley. Place rinsed grape leaves on a work surface. Place a dollop of the mixture at the center of each leaf. Tuck in the ends and roll tightly toward the leaf point. Layer the wrapped leaves in a large saucepan Cover them with broth mixed with lemon juice. Cook over low heat for three-quarters of an hour.
Moussaka: Place minced lamb, minced onions, crushed garlic, chopped mint and oregano, a couple of bay leaves and a cinnamon stick in a large frying pan and cook over a medium heat for a quarter of an hour. Stir in some flour. Add a glass of wine, canned tomatoes, some tomato purée, and bring to a simmer. Cook for half an hour, until the lamb is tender and the sauce has thickened. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Set aside this meat sauce. Fry eggplant slices for a couple of minutes. Set them aside. Cook potatoes in boiling water for five minutes, then cool under running water. Prepare a white sauce as follows. Melt butter in a saucepan, stir in some flour. Cook for a few seconds, then gradually stir in milk. Add some grated parmesan and grated nutmeg. Simmer the sauce gently for 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in a beaten egg. Spoon some of the meat sauce into a shallow dish. Cover with a layer of potatoes and a layer of eggplant. Repeat the layers twice more, finishing with the eggplant. Pour over the white sauce to cover the whole in a thick, even layer. Sprinkle with a bit more parmesan. Bake in the oven until deep golden-brown and bubbling.
Hortopita: Peel, seed, and shred some pumpkin. Weight it to drain its liquid. Cook it in a skillet until it wilts and most or all of its liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a bowl. Cook in the same skillet a chopped leek and onion until also wilted. Transfer to the bowl with the pumpkin. Cook chopped chard and spinach until wilted; add to the bowl. Add the herbs – mint, sorrel, hartwort, chervil, dill, fennel leaves, parsley, and oregano – to the bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roll out a first phyllo dough ball and place it inside an oiled roasting pan. Brush with olive oil. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Spread the filling evenly over the dough. Repeat with a third sheet of dough, placing it over the filling. Brush with olive oil. Roll out the last piece of dough to a slightly smaller piece, and place it over the surface of the pie. Join the bottom and top layers of dough. Brush the top of the pie generously with olive oil. Bake until the pastry is golden and crisp. Remove and serve warm or at room temperature.
Tabouleh: Stir together some bulgur and olive oil. Pour boiling water over, and let stand for a quarter of an hour. Drain well. Toss with finely chopped mint and parsley, a couple of chopped tomatoes, half a cucumber, several tablespoons of lemon and of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Arab salad: Cut segments from half of lemon free from membranes and transfer segments to a cutting board, then squeeze juice from the remaining half a lemon into bowl. Put a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice in a bowl. Add finely chopped segments of lemon. Add salt, pepper, and several tablespoons of olive oil. Whisk to combine. Stir in the remaining ingredients: diced cucumber and tomatoes, finely chopped onion, finely chopped mint and parsley.
Babylonian lamb with barley and mint: Marinate lamb steaks in soy sauce for half an hour. Sauté in oil, along with the trimmings. Remove, leaving the trimmings in the pan. Stir barley into the oil and toast for a few moments. Add cumin, coriander, and chopped garlic. Simmer until the barley is cooked. Place the lamb steaks in the pan and cook the desired degree. Add finely sliced carrots and chopped mint for a few minutes. Remove the lamb and slice. Place the carrots in a serving dish, spoon the barley over carrots, add the sliced lamb, and spoon over with the sauce. (adapted from http://lostpastremembered.blogspot.com/2011/07/onions-onions-everywhere.html)
Mint-coriander chutney: In a blender, grind together chopped mint leaves, chopped coriander, a chopped green chili (personally, I would cut out the chili, but can it be Indian without it?), a piece of ginger, a small amount of cumin, and some lemon juice, until smooth, using a little water if necessary. Salt to taste.
Cucumber-mint raita: Coarsely grate a cucumber. Squeeze dry. Whisk curds (yogurt can substitute), chopped mint, a little cumin, even less cayenne pepper in medium bowl to blend. Add cucumbers and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Yam nang mu (Pork skin salad): Boil pork skin until soft. Cool. Remove any fat from the skin. Slice the skin into thin, short slices. Mix well with a large handful of chopped mint leaves, finely minced lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and ground roasted rice.
Mint sauce and lamb: http://www.maureenabood.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Grilled-chops-platter-POST.jpg (in http://www.maureenabood.com/2012/03/29/grilled-lamb-lollipops-with-fresh-mint-sauce-chine-on/)
Side dish fresh vegetables: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/side-dish-vegetable-thai-restaurants-you-see-serves-hot-spicy-food-e-g-som-tam-green-papaya-salad-34668038.jpg (in http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-side-dish-vegetable-thai-restaurants-you-see-serves-hot-spicy-food-e-g-som-tam-green-papaya-salad-image34668038)
Moroccan mint tea: http://lcmt.topdesert.com/content/photos/travel-guide/authentic-culinary-experiences/pouring-your-mint-tea-without-spilling-a-drop//lowcost-morocco-travel-pouring-your-mint-tea-without-spilling-a-drop1.jpg (in http://lcmt.topdesert.com/index.php?ref=ait-ben-haddou-and-ouarzazate-one-day)