Something Missing From Dinner? Add Spearmint

Israel boasts four types of native spearmint; used in salads and meat dishes, it provides a refreshing tang and some unexpected zest.

Onion salad with spearmint and sumac.
Onion salad with spearmint and sumac. Dan Peretz

There are moments when your entire life and all your memories pass before you, triggered by a sight or a sound or a bite of forgotten food. If you have planned your meal to that end, you will feel as though you have gained this world and the world to come at that very moment. If you want to enjoy such a moment, go out to the herb garden, collect a few sprigs of spearmint ‏(nana‏) and use some of them in a salad you’ve prepared, or scatter them over fried fish, or mix them with meat patties.

Israel has been blessed with four types of spearmint. They can all be found in humid air and wet soil, near rivers and streams and dripping faucets in abandoned backyards. In the summer they will blossom in purple and white, and the rest of the year their upright leaves will disseminate a precious fragrance that keeps the world fresh in our nostrils and mouths.

Spearmint leaves contain an aromatic oil in which tiny molecules of menthol dance. When they encounter those oral cells that identify the heat of food and increase sensitivity to stinging cold, and when air is inhaled, the sides of the stimulated cell tremble and arouse a pleasant sense of cold, which is also a sense of freshness.

There was a reason why our rabbis instructed us to bless “He who created the various spices” at the end of Shabbat, when reciting the Havdalah prayer that separates the sacred from the mundane. Anyone whose spirit has been elevated to other worlds on Shabbat is familiar with the sense of falling into the depths of the everyday secular reality.

In order to soften the fall, during the Havdalah blessings we pass around the spearmint, crush the leaves with our fingertips and deeply inhale a clear, cool breeze that restores the soul, revives the heart and greets the pleasures of this world with a blessing.

Meat with garlic and spearmint

Adding spearmint to a dish toward the end of the cooking lends it freshness without drawing the bitterness of the leaves into the sauce. The use of fresh spearmint along with the sharpness of garlic emphasizes the flavors of the meat, but also adds a fresh tang and a wonderful delicate green feeling.

In Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, they used to prepare this dish with mutton for large family events. In my opinion, slow-cooked beef is equally suitable. Following are two versions: a festive version, which requires long preparation with a tender shoulder of veal, and an everyday version with delicate lamb patties.

1/4 cup ‏(60 ml.‏) olive oil
1 kg. veal shoulder
2 medium-sized leeks
1 head of garlic
1 liter ‏(4 cups‏) chicken stock or water
1 bunch spearmint
1 lemon
1 tsp. sugar
ground black pepper
sea salt

Heat the olive oil in a heavy, wide skillet. Cut the meat into chunks, 3 x 2 cm., and place about half the meat ‏(to prevent the oil from cooling‏) in the skillet. Brown the meat well on all sides, transfer to a bowl and repeat the process with the rest of the meat.

Meanwhile, slice the leeks into 1/2-cm. rings and place in the pan where the meat was fried. Stir with a wooden spoon and scrape the bottom so the meat won’t burn when it is returned to the pan. Peel the garlic cloves and add them whole to the pot. When the leeks soften and become somewhat scorched, return the meat to the pan and pour about two cups of the stock or water over them, only until the meat is covered. Bring to a boil and lower the flame for the rest of the cooking process, so that it bubbles very slightly. Cover and cook for about three to four hours, until the meat becomes very soft. Stir occasionally and add more of the stock if necessary. There is no need to flood the pot with liquid. The idea is for the cooking liquids to condense and thicken.

About half an hour before cooking is complete, season with salt and black pepper. Separate the spearmint leaves from the stalks and fill a whole cup with them. Squeeze lemon juice over them and stir in the sugar. Scatter the spearmint with the lemon and sugar into the pot and stir slightly and gently, only until the spearmint leaves reach all the parts of the dish. Cover, and cook for a few more minutes on a low flame.

Serve with a chopped salad of tomatoes and hot green peppers, and slices of fresh bread.

For lamb patties instead of shoulder of veal:

1 kg. lean lamb
1 egg
2 thick slices of yesterday’s bread
1 small onion
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 tbsp. ‏(45 ml.‏) olive oil
sea salt
ground black pepper

Place the meat and egg in a large bowl. Trim the crust off the bread, soak it in water, squeeze well and crumble into the bowl. Chop the onion very fine and add to the mixture along with the pine nuts, olive oil, salt and pepper. Knead the ingredients into a uniform mixture, cover with cling wrap and let the dough rest for about half an hour in the refrigerator.

Follow the instructions for the previous recipe, replacing the veal chunks with lamb patties. Form small walnut-sized balls and fry them on all sides in a pot, quickly and on high heat. Remove them to a bowl and continue with the leeks and garlic according to the recipe. Add meatballs and stock and cook for about 40 minutes. Add the spearmint with the lemon and sugar about 10 minutes before cooking is finished. Serve with white rice and almonds.

Onion salad with sumac and spearmint

This salad is not to be eaten alone, but as a refreshing addition to dough and meat recipes. It’s wonderful when wrapped in a thin pita with juicy kebab or served with a rich makloubeh − a dish with layers of meat, vegetables and chicken. The sumac lends a sweet and sour flavor to the onion, but also softens it and makes its texture pleasant to bite into. As in any green salad, use fresh ingredients and prepare it as close as possible to serving time.

1 medium-sized purple onion
1 level tsp. sumac
3 tbsp. ‏(45 ml.‏) olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
12 parsley sprigs
4 coriander sprigs ‏(optional‏)
a bunch of fresh spearmint
1/4 cup pine nuts
Atlantic salt
ground black pepper

Slice the onion thinly and separate the rings; place in a bowl. Scatter the sumac, oil and lemon over it and mix with your fingers until the onions are covered and turn bright purple. Chop the parsley and the coriander leaves and add to onions. Separate the spearmint leaves from the stems until you get a cupful of leaves and add them to the bowl. Mix everything together, add salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasoning. Roast the pine nuts on a hot skillet without oil for about a minute or two and add to the salad.

Serve with a hot, thin pita or juicy kebabs and tehina.