Wed April 13, 2011
Kitchen Window

A Passover Recipe As Easy As Matzo Pie

Originally published on Wed April 13, 2011 6:43 am

Toward the opening of the Passover Seder, participants point to the matzo on the table, and announce: "This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover." It's a lovely sentiment, remembering the struggles of previous generations of Jews, and opening your home to all those who suffer to this day. But bread of affliction? No more.

While matzo — a cracker-like unleavened bread — harkens back to a time of slavery and fleeing without time for loaves to fully rise, it has come a long way from hardship fare. Matzo is now coated with crunchy caramel, or dipped in chocolate, or dredged in nuts (or, rapturously, sometimes all three at once). Ground into meal, it's mixed with oil or schmaltz (chicken fat) and shaped into feather-light matzo balls (or, depending on your tastes and the kitchen skills of your family matriarch, somewhat denser, more-toothsome-yet-equally-beloved "sinkers"). And, if you're lucky enough to come from a Sephardic background, it's formed into minas.

Minas, also known as meginas or mehinas, are layered matzo pies, found in Jewish cuisine from Egypt to Turkey to the Isle of Rhodes. Sheets of stiff matzo crackers are softened with water until pliable, then layered with savory fillings and baked, yielding something akin to a Passover-friendly, Ottoman-inflected take on lasagna.

Mina fillings run the gamut, from herb-flecked lamb pies to meltingly soft stewed eggplant, many of them similar to the savory turnovers (bourekas, samboussek, etc.) found throughout the Sephardic world.

Minas can be cut small and served as appetizers (part of the ever-delicious mezze tradition), offered as part of a spread of dishes or served as main dish showstoppers. Vegetable minas are especially beloved as the often-hard-to-find traditional vegetarian Passover entree.

A search for mina recipes, however, can yield something of a mixed bag. Many Sephardic recipes become Americanized over time, with lamb giving way to beef, frozen spinach replacing fresh, and warm spices and fresh herbs falling by the wayside.

To find truly exciting minas, I checked with the experts. Jennifer Abadi comes from a family of Syrian Jews with a rich culinary history, detailed in her cookbook A Fistful of Lentils, and has been researching Sephardic Passover recipes for several years. She found mina variations from Italian, Greek and Egyptian traditions, bright with fresh herbs and varying slightly across the regions.

She kindly shared a recipe for a Turkish mina de carne, featuring a rich filling of oniony lamb and beef in tomato sauce, perked up with handfuls of fresh parsley and dill. I adapted my own favorite spinach-feta pie filling as well, adding extra moisture in the form of not-traditional-but-oh-so-creamy cottage cheese, to account for the matzo's tendency to sop up liquid.

And because Passover also celebrates the coming spring, I pulled together two fillings celebrating the new crops. A Roman-inspired potato-artichoke filling is simmered with saffron and studded with peas, then topped with punchy parsley-lemon-garlic gremolata. Leeks, which are often fried up as fritters at Sephardic Seders (the beloved keftes de prasa), are sauteed with spring asparagus, then given a sunny lift with fresh mint and lemon zest.

Whatever the filling, the basic template is the same: Moisten sheets of matzo with water and set them aside for a few minutes to absorb the liquid and soften. The pliable sheets are then layered with your filling of choice — most of these recipes use three layers of matzo, although Abadi's large and saucy mina is best made with four. The top layer of matzo is glazed with a beaten egg, to give the finished dish a burnished shine.

After a good bake, the mina is allowed to set for a few minutes, and then devoured. Matzo is certainly no longer a bread of affliction.

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