Sephardic Recipes With A Modern Twist

Sephardic Spice Girls


There is no taste in the world more sublime than fried potato. Add meat to the mix and you definitely hit the flavor stratosphere. The meat-and-potato croquette is a staple street food found in countries as varied as Italy, Japan and Morocco, where makouda batata is enjoyed in hand or between layers of khobz (Moroccan flatbread).

In the Sephardic world, this labor-intensive food was reserved for Shabbat and holidays. In Iraqi cuisine, the croquettes are called kubba patata and the ingredients include a stuffing of sautéed ground beef, onion, golden raisins, pine nuts, finely chopped parsley and allspice encased in mashed potatoes, breaded and then deep fried.

Called pastella by the French Moroccans and pastelitos by the Spanish Moroccans, their version includes a meat spiced with nutmeg, bay leaf, onion and crushed garlic and mashed potatoes that are jazzed up with lemon and turmeric. The crispy fried breaded exterior, the creamy mashed potatoes and the savory meat filling make these an irresistible treat.

Sheff’s turn: In Morocco, we ate pastelitos every Shabbat, but in the United States, my working mother prepared them only as a treat for the holidays and birthday celebrations. Then a wonderful thing happened: My mother’s sister Clara, my uncle Menasse and my cousins moved to the U.S., too. My Aunt Clara was so lovely and beautiful that in 1954, she was crowned Miss Larache Colonia Israelita. She would make pastelitos for every family get together. She was not just a beauty queen, she was the Pastelito Queen.

When I recently made them for my family, my children and their cousins were overjoyed. I made so many but they were devoured. At the end of the meal, only two remained, so we gave those to my nephew, who had just returned from serving in the Israeli military. All of the grandchildren reminisced about the ones that maman (grandmother) used to make when they were little.

My aunt and my mother were so well-trained in the art of making pastelitos that they made it look simple. I’ve learned a few tips along the way, many from a Facebook group called Cocottes Recipes, a lovely group of Spanish Moroccan women based in Toronto. They are very generous with their recipes and advice.

The secret to delicious pastelitos is that the meat must be soft, moist and flavorful and the potatoes must be smooth and perfectly seasoned. I also discovered that cooling the potatoes in the refrigerator before forming the croquettes ensures that the they don’t open and fall apart during the frying process.

This is definitely a food that sparks joy. Bon Appetit!


Potato shell:

6 large russet potatoes
1 egg
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Juice of 1 lemon
All-purpose flour or gluten-free flour or matzo meal, for rolling patties
4 eggs, beaten
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying 

Meat filling:

1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste 

Potato mixture:

  1. Boil potatoes in their skins until easily pierced with fork. Mash them while they’re hot.

  2. Add egg and turmeric and mix well. Then add pepper, salt, baking soda and lemon juice and mix well.

  3. Let mixture cool, then form balls slightly smaller than a tennis ball. 

  4. Place in refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Meat mixture (la miga, Spanish for “crumbs”):

  1. Sauté finely chopped onion in oil for 5 minutes, then add ground meat. Using wooden spatula, break meat into small pieces and sauté for 5 more minutes. 

  2. Add bay leaves, garlic, nutmeg and water, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

  3. Uncover and cook until water has evaporated. Continue to break meat into small pieces. Then let cool.

Forming pastelitos:

  1. Moisten hands with water. Flatten potato ball in palm of hand, forming crater.

  2. Add tablespoon of meat filling in crater.

  3. Keeping hands moist, fold potato mixture over meat and seal.

  4. Form ball and flatten into patty.

  5. Roll patty in flour to coat thoroughly.

  6. Refrigerate until ready to fry. 

Frying pastelitos:

  1. In medium bowl, beat eggs and add pinch of salt.

  2. Heat frying pan with neutral frying oil, about 1 inch deep.

  3. Dip flour-coated pastelito into bowl with beaten eggs.

  4. Place in hot oil and fry until both sides are golden brown.

  5. Place on rack or paper towel to drain.

  6. Best served same day, or reheated in 350 F oven.

    Can be frozen, raw or fried. 

Makes 24 medium or 30 small patties. 

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