Mint Infuses Sephardic Cooking


Mint shows up in Sephardic salads, meatballs and sauces, where the Ashkenazi palate least expects them. Admittedly, mint is an acquired taste. Both refreshing and bold, mint is alluring precisely because it can’t be tamed.

Perfuming the air, mint is a beloved ingredient among Sephardic Jews. However, many Ashkenazi Jews employ this pungent herb only as a garnish.

I recall my mother serving iced tea one summer. Hailing from German Jews, she gingerly slid a little mint into a pitcher of tea swirling with ice cubes.

“What am I going to do with all this mint?” she moaned, staring at fragrant stalks with abundant leaves. “It smelled up the refrigerator. I have to throw it out.”

Her attitude influenced me for decades. Although the scent of mint made me swoon, I never bought any at farmers markets.

All that changed, however, when I ate lunch at an Israeli restaurant with a Jewish friend from a Moroccan family. When she ordered mint tea, I took a chance and told the waiter to bring me one, too.

I was shocked when he delivered glasses 4 inches high, crowded with sprigs of mint, steeping in tea. I took a sip, and mint exploded on my taste buds.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I really like it,” I said, feeling exotic. I didn’t realize it, but I’d taken my first step into the assertive flavors of Sephardic cuisine. I began sprinkling mint liberally into recipes.

Mint shows up in Sephardic salads, meatballs and sauces, where the Ashkenazi palate least expects them. Admittedly, mint is an acquired taste. Both refreshing and bold, mint is alluring precisely because it can’t be tamed.

Mint Tea


This recipe can be made in teacups but looks spectacular in mint tea glasses, which are sold online in a variety of gorgeous designs.

6 teaspoons sugar, or more, if desired

6 teabags, such as Lipton or English breakfast tea

6 ¼ cups of water

12 stalks of mint, or more, if desired

Place the sugar and teabags into a large teapot. Reserve.

Pour the water into a saucepan. Cover it, and bring the water to a gentle rolling boil. If it reaches a hard boil, remove the pot from the flame and take off the lid for a few seconds, until the fast churning slows. Pour the water into the teapot. Stir briefly and place the lid on the teapot. Steep the tea for two minutes.

Pour the contents of the teapot evenly into six mint tea glasses or teacups. Place two stalks of mint into each of the tea glasses or teacups. The presentation is attractive when the stalks are taller than the tea glasses. Check desired sweetness and mint flavor, and add more sugar or mint, if desired. Serve immediately.

Serves 6

Yogurt Mint Sauce


1 cup low-fat Greek-style yogurt

2 cloves of garlic, mined

4 teaspoons mint, finely chopped

Kosher salt to taste

3 ½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice, strained

3 ½ teaspoons olive oil

Accompaniments: roasted vegetables; raw vegetables; or tomatoes, cucumbers and pita bread

Place the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and stir with a spoon until well combined. The sauce can be served immediately but tastes better when refrigerated and served the next day.

Serve: to accompany roasted vegetables, as a dip with raw vegetables or stuff seeded and diced tomatoes and cucumbers inside of pita bread and generously drizzle the sauce inside.

Yield: 1 cup

Minted Couscous Salad


1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons

1 small onion, chopped

1 box of uncooked couscous

¼ cup pitted black olives, such as Kalamata

¼ cup golden raisins

3 tablespoons mint, chopped

2 teaspoons lemon juice

⅓ cup feta cheese, or more if desired

In a medium-sized pot, heat one tablespoon oil on a medium flame until warm. Stir in the onion and sauté until sweating and fragrant, about two minutes. In the same pot, prepare the couscous according to the directions on the box — but do not add any additional oil.

When it is ready, fluff the couscous with a fork and cool to room temperature. Move to a serving bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and the two additional teaspoons of olive oil. Toss and serve immediately, or chill and serve within a day.

Serves 6

Middle Eastern Meatballs


½ lb. ground lamb

½ lb. ground beef

½ small onion, chopped fine

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground allspice

3 tablespoons mint, chopped fine

2 teaspoons cilantro, chopped fine

Kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil, or more, if needed

Optional accompaniments: hummus at room temperature and pita bread

Place all ingredients — except the olive oil — in a large bowl. With a fork, mix until well combined. Form mixture into balls 1 inch in diameter by rolling the meat in your palms until firmly packed and showing no seams, which may open during frying.

Briefly warm the oil in a large skillet on a medium flame. Move the meatballs to the skillet. Fry them, turning often with tongs, until they are cooked through. Lower the flame if they are browning too quickly. Add more oil, if needed. Drain briefly on paper towels.

Serve warm on a bed of hummus, or place meatballs and humus inside of pita bread.

Yield: 32 meatballs

Dried Mint


Excess mint can be dried for future use. Enjoy fresh mint all summer when it’s abundant, saving dried mint for the winter.

With string or twist ties, tie together the lower ends of a bunch of mint stalks. On a peg, hang the stalks upside down for a month, or until the leaves crinkle like corn flakes and crumble when squeezed.

Lay a 12-inch length of aluminum foil on a kitchen counter. Pick up one mint stalk at a time and hold it over the foil. Crush the leaves with your fingers until they crumble and flake onto the foil. Discard the woody branches and stalks.

Gather the crumbled leaves in the center of the foil. Fold the foil around the broken mint leaves. Place the folded foil into a Ziploc bag and store at room temperature. Dried mint won’t go bad, but after a year, it starts losing its potency.


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