Cooking on vacation in northern England, I recently confronted a nice rack of lamb for roasting, a couple of not-bad tomatoes and, out in the garden, a whole thicket of the most glorious, flavorful mint — a variety that tasted like spearmint but whose precise botanical identity was unknown, at least to me.
A good rack of lamb really doesn’t need any sauce, and a dense gravy would actually be a detriment. But those tomatoes and that vibrant mint seemed to point the way to a condiment that would be an asset, not a liability.
The lamb-mint association is pretty well entrenched in Anglo-American dining habits. In the United States, we used to see lots of sweet mint jelly, and still do from time to time; in Britain, what they call mint sauce is still de rigueur on many tables. Mint sauce is sweetened vinegar in which chopped mint has been infused. It’s very vinegary, and not in a good way: It’s kind of unpleasant on its own and, to my mind, only marginally acceptable with roasted lamb.
But mint is a great herb, and it does indeed mate well with lamb, though I have to say there’s nothing particularly magical about the combination. Parsley, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and many others pair well with lamb, too. However, there was something magical about the super-lush mint in the back garden, and it begged to be used. I thought of the light dressings that are sometimes called “sauce vierge”: The details vary, but these are basically mild vinaigrettes with added ingredients such as herbs, olives or...tomatoes.
How would a sort of tomato vinaigrette with lots of slivered mint be? It would have a little sweetness from the tomatoes, a little acidity from the judiciously dosed vinegar (and indeed from the tomatoes themselves), a little richness from the olive oil and lots and lots of fresh-tasting mint. I tried it, and it was delicious.
For two people, I grated a 2.5-inch tomato. To do this, I used a technique that I think is Spanish: Cut the tomato in half and rub the flesh side on the coarse face of an ordinary box grater, using your palm or finger tips once you get near the skin. The grater will not (or should not) pierce the skin (the tomato’s or yours), and you will be left with a rough puree of tomato and a flat, thin piece of tomato skin.
I added a bit less than a tablespoon of good olive oil, about half a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, salt and a lot of fresh mint, finely slivered (chopped would have been fine, too). I stirred it with a spoon and left it to steep for 30 minutes. When I re-tasted it, it needed more mint, so I ran out to the garden and got some.
This is a “broken” sauce: The tomato water, the vinegar and the oil do not form an emulsion. It was a perfect summer sauce for our lamb. As we ate it, Jackie and I thought how good it would have been with pasta — spaghetti, say — or with fish. Or, redundantly, on a tomato salad.
And now’s the time to make it: When the tomatoes are so much better than just “not bad.”