Despite the general advice that mint is a herb to be used with discretion, I like to go in the opposite direction, using it boldly, as in when whole leaves are tucked into a hot, chilli-scorched roast-pork sandwich, or chopped and tossed with fried breadcrumbs and lemon zest to scatter over scallops or chicken livers.
You can soften mint's punch by mixing it with another suitable herb. Classic garden mint works best with coriander and basil. The presence of another strong herb stops the mint dominating the dish and the blend can be intoxicating. Mint is so much part of our culture – from mint sauce with lamb to sweets and chocolate – that is comes as a breath of fresh air to marry it with the flavours of the Mediterranean or the Middle East, when it suddenly becomes exotic.
For mint recipes it's always worth looking east. It goes well with aubergines, especially when they are chargrilled; with meatballs and grills; and chopped and folded into grain salads, such as tabbouleh. Of all the suitable partners for this clean-tasting herb, lemon is perhaps the most neglected. I use lemon and mint in dressings for carrot salads, sometimes with a little cream involved. Lemon and mint also make a sparkling dressing, mixed with olive oil, for courgettes.
The simple salad of crisp, pale lettuce, beanshoots, thinly sliced peppers, mangetout and shredded roast chicken with a dressing containing nam plan and soy that I'd made the day before became worth making again once I added a mixture of chopped mint, coriander and sesame oil. A clear broth made from the chicken bones with mushrooms, dark soy, a little miso paste and beanshoots took on a vitality once a handful of mint leaves was stirred in. Mint freshens, invigorates, excites. It stimulates the appetite.
And that is the point. There is no herb that brings with it such freshness and spark. Of course this will vary according to which mint you use. The variety is virtually endless with all manner of variants, from those with hairy leaves or a slightly smoky note to the sweet mints more suited to dessert.
Try a pesto made not with the usual basil but with mint. Out of step, I know, but I do like put a bunch of mint in with the new potatoes from time to time. It tastes of childhood, though probably only if your mother was the sort of person to put mint in her potatoes.
The wretched, pointless mint sprig still turns up on dessert plates, normally with a shower of icing sugar, usually in the company of an inappropriate raspberry. But there is a place for mint at the end of a meal, often in partnership with chocolate (in a mousse or cake, a tart or as a sauce for a pile of little choux buns). And a favourite way to finish dinner when oranges are at their best is to slice them, steep them in a light sugar syrup with fresh mint, then chill them very thoroughly.
Of all the uses for it as summer comes, by far my favourite has been in a frozen yogurt freckled with dark chocolate chips. Although I have an ice-cream machine, I wanted a recipe that anyone with a freezer could do. Rather than churning the mint syrup and dairy produce (I used yogurt, but it could have been custard), I simply beat the ice particles from the outer edges of the freezing sorbet into the liquid middle with a small whisk. Do this two or three times and you will have a much more light and airy ice than if you freeze it into a block. The yogurt and mint made the most refreshing dessert of the year.
Chicken livers with pea purée and mint gremolata
For the pea purée:
peas 200g, podded weight
butter about 20g
For the livers:
a little butter or oil
chicken livers 200g
smoked bacon 4 rashers
Cook the peas in boiling, lightly salted water for 4 or 5 minutes until tender. Drain. Mash the peas with the butter, using a food processor until you have a smooth, thick purée. Season carefully.
Chop the mint leaves finely and grate the lemon. Melt the butter or oil in a nonstick frying pan over a moderate heat then add the breadcrumbs, letting them colour lightly. Stir in the chopped mint leaves and lemon zest, season with salt and set aside.
Wipe the pan with kitchen paper, melt a little more butter then add the seasoned chicken livers and bacon. I like to keep a lid handy, as the livers have a habit of spitting and popping. Turn the livers over as they start to colour, but try to avoid cooking them for more than 4 or 5 minutes. They are best when their insides are rose pink.
To serve, divide the pea purée between four plates, add the chicken livers and the bacon, then scatter over the mint and lemon breadcrumbs.
Mint frozen yogurt
A mint and chocolate sorbet, without the need for an ice-cream maker. Serves 8-10.
caster sugar 250g
mint sprigs 15g
dark chocolate 60g
Blitz the sugar with 10g of the mint sprigs, leaves and stalk, in a food processor. You should end up with moist, green sugar. Put the sugar and water into a saucepan and bring to the boil. As soon as the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and cool the mixture – either by putting the pan in a sink of cold water, or by pouring the syrup into a bowl set in a larger basin of ice cubes.
Blitz the remaining mint briefly with the yogurt, then stir into the cooled syrup and mix gently. Transfer the mixture to a plastic freezer box. Keep in the freezer for a couple of hours or until ice crystals start to form on the edges, then stir or whisk them into the liquid centre and return to the freezer. Repeat a couple of times until almost frozen, then roughly chop the chocolate into small pieces and gently fold it in. Return the mixture to the freezer and leave until frozen. Scoop into bowls and serve.