Sephardic Jews (those originally hailing from Spain and Portugal) maintain a serious love affair with savory pastries. This category of phyllo- and yeasted dough-wrapped parcels are a central part of the cuisine, representing both hospitality and celebration. They were traditionally made by groups of women who would gather together to fill and fold hundreds of the pastries for Shabbat meals, weddings, holidays, or other happy occasions.
Fifty-one weeks out of the year, Sephardic Jews can indulge their savory tooth by tucking into bourekas, bulemas (coiled, filled pastries), and pastelito (miniature pies), among many other handheld delights. But when Passover rolls around, things get tricky. Throughout the weeklong holiday, flour is strictly verboten, which means pastries are categorically out, too.
Fortunately, innovative home cooks found a delicious workaround for their holiday dilemma. Substituting sheets of matzo for the dough, they created mina, a rustic savory pie that is layered with either meat (usually lamb or beef) or cheese and vegetables like leeks, eggplant, spinach and, for the true carb-fiends, mashed potatoes.
The matzo pieces are softened briefly in water or stock, rendering them pliable but still sturdy, akin to lasagna noodles. And the tops of the pies are brushed with an egg wash, leaving them with a shiny, lightly golden patina as they emerge, bubbling, from the oven. The word mina is Ladino (the indigenous Sephardic Jewish language) for “mine,” as in excavate—a perfect description for how one might approach eating such a densely packed strata.
Growing up with an Eastern European Jewish background, mina was never a part of of my family’s Passover celebration. In the Sephardic world, however, variations of these matzo pies can be found in Jewish cuisines from Turkey, Greece, and the Isle of Rhodes, to the Balkans and Italy, where the dish is called scacchi. Meat versions of mina are commonly found at Passover seders, cut into squares and served as a substantial prelude to the main course. Meanwhile, cheese and vegetable versions of the pie are served and reheated (the leftovers keep very well) throughout the week.
Mina are a dream for cooks who like to play around with flavors and incorporate seasonal vegetables into their dishes. The layers need to include a fair amount of moisture (think: curd cheese whisked with milk, or chunky tomato sauce) so the pies do not turn out dry and brittle. And eggs help to bind things together in both the meat and dairy takes on mina. But as long as these golden rules are followed, pretty much anything goes. Toss in handfuls of chopped fresh parsley, mint, or dill, sauté up whatever vegetable looks good at the market and fold them into the filling, or deepen the sauce with warming spices. Whichever way you slice it, mina is a welcome addition to my and any Passover table.
- 2 medium red potatoes (about 1 pound total), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 large leeks (white and light green parts), thinly sliced
- 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 5 ounces baby spinach leaves (about 6 cups)
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 5 eggs
- 9 sheets matzo
- Finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, for serving
Tell us: What's traditionally on your Passover menu?