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Sprigs of spring

Special to The Times

Real mint smells like spring and tastes like summer.

But that’s real mint. It’s worlds away from the green jelly in the jar, the assertive flavoring in the chocolate ice cream, the off taste in the bottled iced tea. And yet no other flavor, except maybe lemon, is as heavily synthesized. And no other flavor, including lemon, loses so much in the translation from vibrant food to artificial additive.

Mint is one of the true wonders of the herb garden. Most cooks underestimate its usefulness, saving the leaves for dessert or drinks and never thinking to add a few fragrant slivers to a salad or a whole bunch to a soup. It often tends to get overshadowed by its close cousin basil and even by boring parsley.

This time of year mint almost literally seems to jump up and beg to be played with, though. Not only does it pair off naturally with so many spring foods, from strawberries to lamb, but the wild stuff springs up everywhere water flows (even around the water meter of the house where I grew up). Farmers markets sell enticing kinds beyond supermarket-variety spearmint, from chocolate to pineapple to ginger. And chefs showcase it as the daffodil on the menu, the leading indicator of seasonal flavors, knowing it will add an enticingly sweet lightness to everything it touches.

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Lately mint has even been flirting with hipness, thanks to the mojito. The leaves are as essential as white rum in the Cuban cocktail, which has gotten to be as inescapable as the Buena Vista Social Club in bars across America.

Except in mojitos, I never tasted mint when I went to Cuba, but the herb looks right at home in a surprising number of other countries’ kitchens. (One of my reference books from 1969 lists words for it in at least 11 languages, from Arabic to Swedish, and that was ages before the Internet.) The Vietnamese tuck it into summer rolls and chop it into salads with cilantro, for starters, while the Greeks stuff it into grape leaves and team it with feta.

Mint is indispensable in many Middle Eastern dishes as well as a sweet after-dinner tea and also adds a twist to classics such as tabbouleh. Indians use it in everything from raita to chutney to curries.

The British, of course, are famous for mint sauce, which has been bastardized into mint jelly in this country. The real thing is more sharp than sweet, just finely chopped leaves in the barest bit of liquid made from sugar dissolved in vinegar and hot water. Dribbled onto a slice of classic, garlicky roast lamb, or over a grilled chop, it makes you wonder why English cooking ever got a bad name.

Mint is almost reflexively used as a garnish on a tall glass of lemonade, but I recently was turned on to a better idea: puree the leaves with the lemonade and lots of ice in a blender and you get a gorgeous sweet-tart drink, almost a lemon-mint slushy.

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Meeting its matches

Fresh mint probably is most famous in juleps, one of the more baffling beverages ever concocted. Having lived in Kentucky, I make them once a year for nostalgic reasons but have to admit they’re a waste of a good herb if not great Bourbon. The best recipe calls for ceremoniously mixing the mint with lots of sugar and ice in a special iced silver cup, then throwing away the cup and drinking the Bourbon.

The problem is not the mint but the sugar. Less is more with this herb.

Sweet peas and mint, however, go together like cinnamon and apples, and there’s no end of ways to make the match.

I like mint in a creamy fresh pea soup, for instance, but a julienne of the leaves could be tossed with sugar snap peas and prosciutto, or with stir-fried snow peas and shiitakes. (This time of year, frozen baby peas are the best bet for cooking into soup.)

Mint also goes amazingly well with potatoes, especially in salads. And when I made mashed potatoes with green onions the other night, I realized mint would take them into another dimension; I could imagine using them in shepherd’s pie with leftover lamb.

Other good partners for mint also include carrots, beets and cantaloupe (especially in a cold soup). It likes yogurt too, and cucumbers, and both together in a dip. And it can be used interchangeably with basil, in pesto or pasta, with tomatoes or in gazpacho.

Mint is not as temperamental as basil, though. It keeps well in the refrigerator if you leave it in the plastic bag it was sold in. It washes well and does not turn black unless you get it too close to heat.

I tend to use a whole bunch at a time and not worry about storing it. For an aggressive herb, it mellows out considerably when it meets its match, particularly in hot food. (In a cooked dish, in fact, it’s best added at the end.)

Through the ages

Over the centuries, more than 600 varieties have been discovered or cultivated, according to Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz’s “Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices & Flavorings.”

But spearmint is what usually turns up alongside the fresh dill and chives even in the best produce sections. Peppermint, which has a stronger smell, is used to produce the oil that flavors candies and chocolates as well as creme de menthe, the essential ingredient in the grasshoppers of my misspent youth.

The unparaphrasable Waverley Root wrote that “it is the destiny of mint to be crushed.”

As with all ancient foods, this one figures pungently in mythology, he goes on to say: “Minthe was an adulterous nymph whose lover’s wife, Persephone, punished her by trampling her into the ground, but she lived on as an herb.”

Life was more dramatic before reality TV.

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Roast lamb with fresh mint sauce

Total time: About 2 hours

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: The mint sauce is also excellent served with lamb chops.

1 (6- to 7-pound) bone-in leg of lamb, trimmed of fat and tied

4 large cloves garlic, slivered

Coarse salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup coarse-grain mustard

1 cup very finely chopped fresh mint leaves, washed and dried

2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

4-6 tablespoons good-quality balsamic vinegar

1-3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Using a sharp paring knife, cut thin slits all over the lamb and slide the slivers of garlic in. Season on all sides with salt and pepper. Set on a rack in a roasting pan. Rub the mustard all over the exposed surface.

2. Roast the lamb 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and roast 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until cooked to desired doneness. Check after the first hour at lower temperature, using an instant-read thermometer inserted only into the meat, avoiding the bone. A reading of 120 degrees will be rare, 130 medium-rare, 140 for medium; the meat will continue to cook as it sits. Transfer to a carving board and let stand 20 minutes before carving.

3. While the lamb roasts, place the mint in a deep bowl. Combine the sugar with 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar in a small nonreactive saucepan with 1/4 cup water. Heat over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves, 2 to 3 minutes. Immediately pour over the mint and toss well. Taste and add more sugar or vinegar as needed; the flavor should be sharply minty and sweetly balanced.

4. To serve, slice the lamb into serving portions and pass the sauce separately to be used judiciously.

Each of 8 servings: 390 calories; 284 mg. sodium; 165 mg. cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 53 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.

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Chocolate mint ice cream

Total time: 15 minutes, plus 8 hours steeping and freezing time

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: Use the best chocolate you can find.

2 bunches fresh mint, stems removed, leaves washed and dried

3 cups heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup sugar

Dash coarse salt

3 ounces finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

1. Chop the mint and place in a glass bowl. Add the cream and stir until blended. Cover and steep in the refrigerator overnight.

2. Strain the mint mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl, pressing on the mint to extract all the liquid. Discard the mint. Stir the sugar, salt and chocolate into the cream and mix well with a rubber spatula. Transfer to an ice cream freezer and freeze according to manufacturer’s directions.

Each of 6 servings: 559 calories; 74 mg. sodium; 163 mg. cholesterol; 50 grams fat; 30 grams saturated fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 3 grams fiber.

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Minted sweet pea soup

Time: 40 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: The soup can also be served chilled.

2 (10-ounce) packages frozen baby peas

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 green onions, white parts only, trimmed and thinly sliced

Dash coarse salt

1 small head bibb lettuce, leaves washed well, tough ends removed

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 bunch fresh mint, stemmed and washed well

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

White pepper

Small pea shoots, for garnish

1. Cook the peas according to the package directions, drain and set aside.

2. Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the green onions and salt and cook, stirring, until just softened, 3 minutes. Add the lettuce and 1/2 cup water, cover and cook over very low heat until very soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the stock and 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 5 minutes.

3. Working in batches, transfer the lettuce mixture, peas and mint to the blender and process until smooth. Transfer to a clean pot and add the cream. Simmer 5 minutes. Season with more salt if needed and white pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls and garnish with pea shoots.

Each serving: 193 calories; 372 mg. sodium; 38 mg. cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 6 grams fiber.

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Mint lemonade

Time: 10 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: This is from Jeanne Anderson of Beverly Hills, who got it from the Outrigger Canoe Club on Oahu, Hawaii.

3-4 lemons

1/2 cup sugar

20 fresh mint leaves, washed

Lemon slices or mint leaves, for garnish

1. Squeeze the lemons and pour the juice into a quart jar (you’ll need 1 cup). Add the sugar and fill the jar with 3 cups of water. Cover tightly and shake until the sugar dissolves. Taste and add more lemon or sugar as needed.

2. To serve, pour 1 cup into a blender. Add 5 mint leaves and a handful of ice and process until slushy. Pour into a glass, garnish with a lemon slice or mint leaf and serve immediately, with a straw. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

Each serving: 112 calories; 1 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.


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