T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is The Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
We all get into habits of taste, whether because of culture, personal preference or the idiosyncrasies of whoever taught us to cook. Why do we put lemon or milk in our tea, but never both? Why is it always mustard or mayo? These are the sort of thoughts I was having the first time I used mint and paprika in the same dish.
For me, mint had always been the cool bachelor uncle of the herb family — the one that lent its icy wit to mint chip ice cream, whose lofty aroma could turn a bourbon into a julep or give fruit salads a sweet and lively bite. As spearmint, I found it bracing and wintry, as peppermint, nimble and teasing. Dried, it made a soothing tea, the nip of menthol tamed to a numbing tingle that worked equally well served hot or cold.
Paprika was the inscrutable maiden aunt, that dusty red powder derived — who knows how? — from a bell pepper. For years, my only use for paprika was to dust it over a roast chicken, which, like a rouge or bronzer, I felt, gave it a lovely color. As far as taste, it might as well have been a cosmetic, because I couldn't have told you what difference it made. Later I used it in salad dressings, but still more as a color than a flavor. Like the mysterious "red matter" in the new Star Trek movie, the paprika I knew was enigmatic, unexamined and served mostly to advance the plot.
Eventually, I got hold of some real sweet paprika rather than the faded red dust of my youth, and I learned to love its gentle, earthy warmth for its own sake. Along with its hot and smoked siblings, I found I liked it on roast vegetables and in chili.
But never in my long, slow, spice-cabinet learning curve did I dream that mint and paprika might go together. One might be a sweet herb, the other a sweet vegetable, but there the kinship ended. If the sweetness of mint was crisp and cool, the sweetness of paprika was a soft glow of heat — their existence, diametrically opposed. Somewhere far beneath the Earth, I liked to muse, paprika and mint could be locked in eternal combat, determining whether the universe belongs to the forces of cool or warm.
It would have been different if I'd had even the most basic familiarity with Turkish cuisine, where paprika and mint join in a dance at least 300 years old. Mint is a Mediterranean native, weedy and ubiquitous; the chili peppers used to make paprika showed up after Columbus and made themselves right at home. As was the case with that more famous Old World-New World pair, basil and tomatoes, it was a match just waiting to happen.
And if it was to happen anywhere, it was bound to happen in Turkey, whose strategic position as a terminus of the Silk Road made it an inevitable, tumultuous melting pot for the flavors of many empires.
Alone, mint is piercing and paprika rounded. Together, their sweetness converges into something completely different from either — an herbal, fruity wake-up call, confused and aromatic; cool on the sides of the tongue and warm at the tip. It's a strangely addicting hybrid that tastes equally of the pasture and the garden.
You can sample that constellation of taste in many versions of the traditional Turkish red lentil soup (ezo gelin corbasi or mercimek corbasi). The paprika and the mint (dried and flaky) get swirled together in butter, their blended flavor lifting and brightening the rustic soup. It's the dried mint, with its intense, herbal zing, rather than the fresh mint, that you want here. McCormick markets it as "mint flakes," but you can find it in bulk at natural food stores. I suspect you could even just tear open a packet of mint tea.
I fell hard for the same seasoned butter draped over manti, the Turkish lamb dumplings with garlicky yogurt. In fact, once the dumplings were gone, I just kept on going — spooning buttered, herbed, spiced yogurt into my mouth without even the dieter's pretense of remorse.
Along the same lines, a yogurt marinade is good for conveying mint and paprika deep into chicken, there to await the fiery blast of the grill. Or you can sprinkle the two together onto sauteed potatoes, or mix them into a skillet of wilted greens and ground beef or lamb.
The whole experience has caused me to cast a probing, evaluative eye on the wooden cabinet in the corner of the kitchen. What other couples have come to a secret understanding in that dark, aromatic niche? Could the oregano be having a fling with the Aleppo pepper? The thyme and the mace? Is the fennel consorting with the sumac?
I'd like to demonstrate the kind of abandon my son does when he makes salad dressing (his last one included cinnamon and grains of paradise, a medieval spice), but I usually end up doing the same old sums on the spice abacus: nutmeg plus allspice, cumin plus coriander. It will probably take more than one ancient civilization to bring about real change in my herbal calculus. Until then, I'll remain just one more traveler on the spice road.
Red Lentil 'Peasant' Soup With Sizzling Mint Butter
An unadorned lentil soup, for all its earthy goodness, can be bland. In this one, adapted from Turquoise by Greg and Lucy Malouf (Chronicle 2008), finely diced tomato and bulgur give the soup texture and dimension. However, it's the sweet and dark tones of cumin and paprika, combined with the mint butter, that really make it memorable to taste — though, like most lentil soups, probably not to look at.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon tomato paste
7 ounces red lentils
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1/4 cup fine bulgur
1 ripe tomato, cut into quarters and seeded
Freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces unsalted butter
1 teaspoon dried mint
Lemon wedges for serving
Heat the oil over low heat in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Stir the onion, carrot and garlic around in the hot oil, then add the cumin, hot paprika and 1 teaspoon of the sweet paprika, and saute for 5 to 8 minutes, until the vegetables soften.
Stir in the tomato paste and cook for a minute. Add the lentils and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.
When the lentils have broken down and become creamy, add the bulgur. Dice the tomato finely, then add to the pan, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for 10 minutes.
When ready to serve, ladle the soup into warmed serving bowls. Quickly heat the butter in a small frying pan until it foams, then add the remaining sweet paprika and the dried mint. Swirl the sizzling butter into each bowl of soup and serve with wedges of lemon.
I have found that two-thirds of the recipe of manti dough is sufficient to wrap the lamb, but you may enjoy cutting up the excess into rough shreds of pasta, which are delectable eaten with the yogurt and butter. You don't have to make dumplings so tiny; it's a time-consuming task, and you're going to gobble them up in 5 minutes anyway. If you use a 2- or 3-inch wrapper instead of a 1-1/2 inch, it's unlikely anyone will cry foul. This recipe is adapted from Turquoise by Greg and Lucy Malouf (Chronicle 2008).
Makes 4 servings
2 to 3 large eggs
14 ounces bread flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
7 ounces minced or ground lamb
1 small onion, grated
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
14 ounces Greek-style yogurt
2 ounces unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried mint
To make the manti dough, lightly beat two of the eggs, and put these into the bowl of an electric mixer with the flour and salt. Use the dough hook to work it to a stiff dough. If the dough is too stiff, add the remaining egg, lightly beaten. Knead for about 5 minutes, then put the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for another 5 minutes or so, until smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and leave to rest for about 1 hour.
Separate dough into pieces the size of a golf ball. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough on a lightly floured work surface to form a large, paper-thin rectangle. Cut into strips around 1-1/2 inches wide, Repeat with the remaining dough. Stack the strips on top of each other and cut into 1-1/2-inch (or 2- to 3-inch) squares. (If you have a pasta machine, roll the dough through the settings, then trim the sheets to end up with 1-1/2-inch squares.)
Combine the lamb and onion in a bowl, then season with salt and pepper. Place a chickpea-sized amount of filling (or more, if using larger squares) in the center of each manti square. If you're brave enough to attempt the traditional shape, bring two opposite corners together over the filling and press to join at the top. Repeat with the other two corners, carefully moistening and pinching the side "seams" as you go to seal them. You should aim to end up with a four-cornered starlike shape. For an easier option, simply moisten the edges with a little water and fold the pastry over the filling to create little triangles, then squeeze to seal. Whichever shape you decide to make, ensure that the edges are sealed well so the filling doesn't come out as the manti cook. Place the manti on a lightly floured tray as you complete them and repeat until all the dough and filling have been used.
Crush the garlic with 1 teaspoon salt, then beat into the yogurt until well-combined.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Drop in some of the manti — they will rise to the surface within 1-1/2 to 2 minutes as they are cooked. Use a large slotted spoon to transfer the cooked manti to four warmed serving bowls. Repeat with the remaining manti.
Spoon the garlic yogurt sauce over the warm manti. Quickly sizzle the butter in a small frying pan, then add the paprika and mint and heat until foaming. Swirl the sizzling butter over the manti and serve immediately.
I almost always prefer grilling dark chicken meat to breast meat, which dries out the second you look at it. This yogurt marinade has an enviable moistening and tenderizing effect — and the longer you can leave the chicken in, the better it will be. You will need about 20 wooden skewers.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 cloves garlic
Salt to taste
1-1/2 cups yogurt (full fat or low-fat)
2 tablespoons dried mint
1-1/2 tablespoons sweet paprika
Juice of 1 lemon
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Crush the garlic with a bit of salt in a mortar and pestle until it forms a paste (alternatively, you can use a garlic press). Combine with the remaining marinade ingredients in a heavy-duty plastic freezer bag. Set aside while you prepare the chicken.
Lay the thighs on a cutting board; unfold each boneless thigh to its full length. Cut crosswise into strips about 1 1/2- inches wide — you'll get 2 or 3 from each thigh. Drop the strips into the marinade bag and massage the marinade into the chicken. Refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.
Meanwhile, soak the wooden skewers in water for an hour or more (this prevents them from burning on the grill).
Preheat a gas grill or start the coals for a charcoal grill. While the grill is heating, carefully thread the chicken onto the skewers. Grill over high heat, turning once, until just cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Serve immediately.
Adding the paprika and mint in two stages helps extend their flavor from soft and pungent to bright and sharp. You can peel the potatoes, or not. If you don't, some of the peel will come off as you slice the blanched potatoes, but that's nothing to worry about. Most of the time in this recipe is taken up waiting for the potatoes to cool so you can slice them, so it's helpful to blanch the potatoes ahead of time.
Makes 4 side-dish servings
2 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon gold or carola (4 to 6)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons sweet paprika, divided
1 tablespoon dried mint, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
Fill a large saucepan with water; add the potatoes and as much salt as if you were cooking pasta. Bring the water to a boil, then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on size of potatoes, or until you can just pierce them with a sharp skewer. They shouldn't fall apart. Drain the potatoes and set aside to cool.
When the potatoes are cool enough to handle (and don't rush it), cut into 1/4-inch slices with a sharp knife. If you have large potatoes, divide them lengthwise in half before you start slicing, so you end up with half-moons rather than coins.
Heat the largest, heaviest skillet you have — cast iron works best — over high heat until it makes a water droplet dance. Add the olive oil, swirl it and immediately add the potatoes, half the paprika and half the mint. Spread the potatoes out into a single layer as best you can (you may need to do two batches). Let them cook without disturbing for 3 or 4 minutes, or until they have formed a gorgeous golden crust. Flip them over with a spatula, and cook the other side the same way, for 3 or 4 minutes. (If you're really obsessive about getting a good crust, as I am, you may find yourself swapping the outside potatoes into the center a few times.)
Season with the remaining paprika and mint, and salt to taste. You don't really need pepper, but you might like it. Serve immediately.