Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: New Things To Do with Mint

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

Leftover mint is a killer for me. Unless I'm making some kind of minty ice cream, in which case my technique is use ALL the mint!, I usually have some leftover leaves in the fridge. Mint expires especially quickly; here are some technique-based applications that you can whip up at a moment's notice.

Bold Salads

Mint sometimes joins salads in delicate chiffonades or as part of a vinaigrette, but I prefer more rustic variations. Tear some leaves over blood orange and grapefruit segments, then drizzle on some peppery olive oil. Or toss whole leaves with black olives, thinly sliced fennel, and orange segments. Make an especially minty tabbouleh with chopped tomato, cucumber, parsley, and just a wee bit of bulgur.

I find citrus to be a natural partner for mint in salads, but sharp, pungent, and peppery flavors are also welcome. Mint can subtly sweeten a simple, punchy salad of arugula and shaved parmesan, or a mix of thinly sliced endive and radicchio (to which I usually add a creamy cheese like chevre or Greek mizithra).

Pasta

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Spaghetti with fennel pollen, orange, garlic, and mint.

Mint is just awesome in pasta. Since the herb plays well with both butter and olive oil, it's an easy addition to thin oil-based sauces for spaghetti and the like. My favorite is made mostly with pantry staples: a slightly weird but totally delicious combination of spaghetti with fennel pollen, orange zest, garlic, and mint. A bite tastes like pure late spring and showcases mint's perfect balance between sweet and savory. Minty peas, tossed with butter and pecorino, are a great addition to small chunky pastas like orecchiette. And, of course, there's pesto. I'm not going to say you should make a straight-mint pesto, but adding some to your basil (and maybe with a hit of pistachio as well) can ramp up the high aromatic notes of your sauce.

Mint also takes well to meaty sauces, both thick and thin. When properly rendered and crisped, peppery, porky guanciale can sauce pasta almost by itself. I say almost till you add some mint at the very last second (okay, and some cheese); nothing cuts through the heavy funk of pork fat quite like it. Don't forget about the romance between mint and lamb, either. The tomato-mint sauce that accompanies spicy lamb ravioli from Mario Batali's Babbo is famous for good reason.

Enliven Braises

Some of my favorite braised dishes hail from the Middle East, where mint is a bright, cooling garnish to warm, soulful spices, meat, and dried fruit. So many of those flavors—lamb, dried apricot, and coriander, to name a few—are all excellent candidates for mint. Cilantro is the go-to herb to sprinkle on these dishes, but mint is an even more cooling, fresh-tasting alternative.

Those cooling properties are also welcome anywhere slow-cooked tomatoes are present, a common element in many braises. The meaty flavors cooked tomatoes develop, especially when bolstered by meat in a braise, just calls for the light touch of mint. Just a few torn leaves will make the oregano-heavy Sunday gravy a lot less heavy.

Cool Down Chiles

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Charred eggplant and tomatoes with harissa and mint.

The Italians and the Moroccans understand the complex relationship between mint and chile, which they explore in pastas, condiments, and more. Mint and a bit of fat cools down chiles while also bringing out their flavor, like a glass of water after a spoonful of hot sauce (but, you know, tastier). Dried red chiles especially benefit; mint adds grassy flavors reminiscent of fresh chile. The combination is like a mutant super-pepper that tastes at once fresh and grassy as well as deep and roasted. The best candidates I know for this pairing are pasta and harissa, the North African chile paste. Where it treads as a garnish, so should mint. Consider a dish of charred eggplant and tomatoes, flavored with harissa and mint.

These are just a few ways to brighten up mint in your kitchen. Do you have any techniques for getting the most out of mint?

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is also known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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