- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Lamb garnished with mint is a natural partnership. Visualize a rack of lamb with roasted garlic and artichokes hot off the grill, oozing fragrant juices onto a platter garnished with sprigs of fresh mint. What a delicious marriage of flavors. But the average American, when served lamb, often asks for a spoonful of bright green mint jelly. Why?

Mint jelly is the tuna-noodle casserole of condiments, near the bottom of the sophistication totem pole. The stuff is straight out of the ‘50s. The sweetness is cloying, and all of the color is artificial. The flavor comes from mint extract.

But the lamb-and-mint-jelly coupling is a habit worth rethinking. First, let’s take a look at its ancestry. Combining lamb with mint is an English tradition.

Long ago, lamb was born only in the spring, about the time when sprigs of mint began shooting up in the gardens, but that lamb was tough, gamy and stringy.

As a result, all cuts of the animal were subjected to the traditional methods of tough-meat cookery, including braising, pot-roasting and boiling. When it came to the table, the poor lamb was usually gray-brown, overdone and reeking of mutton. Enter mint sauce.

The lamb joint was invariably accompanied by a thin mixture of vinegar, sugar and mint posing as a sauce.

The puckery concoction overpowered everything else in the meal and certainly wreaked havoc on any wine being served, but, hey, the vinegar masked the flavor of that less-than-fabulous lamb. Mint sauce is still the expected condiment in Britain, where people eat something like five times as much lamb as Americans.

Americans have retained a liking for mint with lamb but have never cottoned much to the pucker-inducing vinegar sauce, preferring a sweet flavor instead. When J.M. Smucker Co. of Orrville, Ohio, produced a mint-flavored jelly in the 1940s, it was an immediate best seller.

Segue to today. Lamb is available year-round. It is at its best when served rare and juicy.

The meat is tender, delicately flavored and delicious. Today’s lamb needs only a condiment partner, not a cover-up.

Pittsburgh chef Kathleen Blake knows a lot about matching flavors. She serves rare roast lamb with a minted onion relish. “The relish is subtle and complements the lamb without overpowering it,” Miss Blake says. “The relish can also be served with grilled chicken or salmon. And it elevates even simple lamb burgers to something special. It’s a condiment I like to keep on hand.”

Greeks, Middle Easterners and North Africans also like mint with their lamb, but they make more intricate dishes than plain roasts and grills.

“There are other ways to garnish lamb while keeping the flavor of mint,” says Miss Blake. “Here’s a simple one. Make a sauce of yogurt or sour cream mixed with diced cucumber, lemon juice, salt and pepper and chopped fresh mint to serve with riblets or lamb burgers.”

Red onion relish with mint

1 tablespoon butter

1 large red onion, sliced

1 large yellow onion, sliced

1/2; cup red wine

1/2; cup red wine vinegar

2 to 3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon honey

Salt and pepper

1/2; cup fresh mint, shredded into chiffonade

Melt butter in a large skillet. Add red and yellow onion slices; cook slowly until they are softened and have turned pink. Add wine and wine vinegar, and cook over low heat until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed.

Stir in the sugar, honey and salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking another 5 minutes or so until the onions are quite soft and the mixture is blended and thickened like jam.

Stir in the shredded mint. Remove from heat immediately, or mint flavor will be lost.

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