Discover more from ingredient by Rachel Phipps
The calming, refreshing herb that welcomes warmer weather. Plus, a recipe for Fresh Mint & Ginger Lemonade.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on fresh mint: an easy growing patio herb that is beloved across cultures and seasons, but which now is coming into abundance as we head towards summer.
At the bottom of the post I’ve posted my ‘the weather is starting to get warmer’ recipe for Fresh Mint & Ginger Lemonade. It is super refreshing, aromatic and slightly spicy - the perfect thing to kick off ‘it’s almost summer’ sips. Later this month I’ll be sharing a couple more mint-centric recipes, one for a clever after dinner treat I picked up at a sadly now shuttered neighbourhood Indian in South London, and another pan supper featuring pork that I just could not get enough of last summer.
To receive these recipes, plus access all of the recipes from past newsletters as well as my monthly Kitchen Cupboards interviews, you can upgrade your subscription here. And if you fancy exploring the archives for more inspiration, last May we were all about Asparagus.
Bushy, abundant mint. For gardeners it is both a joy - fragrant, hardy (well if it has enough water, there is a reason it is sad supermarket herbs in these photos rather than a bushy pot of home grown…) and delicious steeped in boiling water for a tisane - and a bit of a nightmare if it is allowed out of the confines of a pot; just like sage, it is impossibly invasive.
For cooks, it is aromatic and just as hardy, gracing cuisines across the globe, just as an essential accompaniment to lamb or mutton on English tables in the guise of a sauce as it was in copious amounts alongside freshly chopped coriander in the Thai-inspired Chicken Larb I’m working on for a client at the moment.
If basil is the summer herb, mint is the herb that is capable of bringing the sunshine whatever the month. Both soft and woodsy, both delicate and punchy depending on the preparation, I find that, like dill, it always adds a bit more interest to a dish than if you’d simply reached for the culinary herb workhouses that are flat leaf parsley and the aforementioned coriander.
As I often do when I’m grasping around for the right words to capture a month’s ingredient I went hunting for the words of others on my culinary shelf to help find them, but instead I found a vibe I don’t quite agree with. In her brilliant cult volume The Flavour Thesaurus the culinary colossus Niki Segnit introduces mint thusly:
Mint is moody. Turns black when you chop it with a knife. In the UK, spearmint is paired with summer produce such as new potatoes, soft fruits, baby carrots and peas, and if you’re not careful their delicate flavours can be overwhelmed by its sweet melancholy. Mint really cheers up when it is partnered with strong flavours, as in richly beefy Vietnamese pho, or chargrilled lamb kebabs, feta cheese or dark chocolate. In the Middle East peppermint is sometimes combined with lemon verbena to make a soothing tea. The different flavour of peppermint is attributable in part to its cooling menthol content. Peppermint is grown predominately for its essential oil, used in confectionary, ice cream, dental products and the mint-flavoured liqueur, creme de menthe.
I’m not quite sure I’d describe mint as ‘moody’. Or melancholic. I’d describe it as calming and relaxing, and I’m not just saying that because I switch to mint tea from green at midday each day, and a mug of it is what I wind down with every night.
Also, unless you grow it for tea, spearmint here in the UK, at least these days is a toothpaste or superior Polo flavour, rather than something oft paired with potatoes. In fact, I've given up on that old 'trick' of pitting a sprig of the stuff in with a pan of new potatoes - usually still in their skins - to boil as I've never tasted any evidence of imparted flavour. Just wasted mint.
I do however agree with the listed flavour pairings; in all mint is either essential, or at least most welcome. Many of the pairings for mint in the thesaurus other than the aforementioned such as chilli, cucumber and cumin are familiar; others such as star anise, cinnamon and oily fish are a little less expected.
Nikki’s blurb also mentions fresh mint’s American cousin, that little bottle of peppermint extract I’ve got in the cupboard for making peppermint creams at Christmas. When I was child, peppermint was just a flavour (as a connoisseur of green ice cream mint chocolate chip just beats out pistachio to be my favourite ), it had nothing to do with winter festivities. That was until I moved to America where peppermint competes firmly with gingerbread as ‘the’ Christmas flavour for sweets and confections. Not that I’m complaining - each Christmas I now miss not being able to access a box of Trader Joe’s Minty Mallows - but I think peppermint misses the nuance that makes fresh mint so special. It is just too overwhelming. It is why I’m an advocate of subbing in fresh mint in places where peppermint might otherwise be included, such as in homemade ice cream.
Typically in the garden I just grow Moroccan Mint, a kitchen-friendly variety good for mint sauce and brewing tea (my two staple uses) but as well as Spearmint in the past I’ve also grown Chocolate Mint (deep and sultry, good for baking and yes, with a chocolatey edge when again steeped as a tea). Pineapple Mint (named such for it’s fragrance) is an aesthetic choice with pretty yellow-bordered leaves, and I’m tempted to invest in some Water Mint as my garden often bogs and there is a bit where nothing seems happy where spreading mint would be something of a blessing, rather than a curse.
For my UK readers if you’re looking to invest in some of the more unusual mint - or other herb - varieties, can I point you in the direction of Urban Herbs whom I’ve had some lovely varieties from in the past?
Fresh Mint & Ginger Lemonade
Serves: 8, Preparation time: 20 minutes, plus chilling time, Cooking time: 5 minutes
I have a few different methods for making homemade lemonade, and this one best suited to infusions started life as the Thyme Lemonade in my first cookbook Student Eats. Made from the impossibly large California lemons I used to buy at my local farmers market in Los Angeles it is what I usually enjoyed a tall glass of to cool down with after the sweltering walk back through the botanical gardens from class.
I’ve left the ginger and mint to steep separately as when met with boiling water or sugar syrup they both need to be treated differently; whilst ginger can happily infuse away getting stronger by the minute, when I was testing my Mint Mojito Syrup recipe (originally made to stock my best friend’s fridge for mocktail making when she had family to stay in the days leading up to her wedding, but which then exploded in popularity online during lockdown) I found that if you leave fresh mint sprigs to infuse in hot sugar syrup for longer than 15 minutes the flavour starts to die and the mix will become a little muddy instead.
2 x thumb sized pieces fresh ginger
70g white sugar
large handful fresh mint leaves, plus extra sprigs for garnish
juice of 4 average sized lemons, or 3 large ones
Slice the ginger - don’t worry about peeling it - into coins and place them in the bottom of a jug. Pour over 500ml of just boiled water from the kettle, and set aside to infuse.
In a saucepan, combine the sugar and an additional 500ml of water (temperature does not matter here) over a medium heat. Slowly bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to make sure all the sugar is dissolved.
Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the mint leaves. Leave to steep for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, squeeze the lemons.
Remove the mint leaves from the syrup, squeezing any excess liquid from them as you go. Add the lemon juice, and strain in the ginger infusion.
Chill completely before serving over ice in glasses garnished each with another mint sprig. If you keep frozen lemon slices in the freezer, a couple of these in each glass would not go amiss either!
Polo mints are like British Lifesaver candies, coming in regular mint, spearmint or fruit flavours.