One of the great gifts of the Syrian Jews to gastronomy is this meatball dish. Flavored with tamarind sauce [see “What Is Tamarind” below] and dried and frozen sour cherries, this sweet and sour keftes meatball recipe has been handed down for five generations in the family of Melanie Franco Nussdorf, a Washington lawyer who loves to cook the dishes of her ancestors, from Aleppo. We can tell that Melanie’s family recipe has been updated over the years, as it contains tomato paste, a relatively recent addition to Old World cooking. If you cannot find sour cherries, frozen Bing or dark sweet cherries will work just fine.
New Cookbook: “King Solomon’s Table” by Joan Nathan
New Food: Tamarind
½ cup pine nuts
1 large sweet onion, diced (about 1½ cups)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds ground beef
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon ground Aleppo or Marash pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
2 teaspoons tomato paste or ketchup
½ cup breadcrumbs, fresh
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ onions, diced (1 1/3 cups)
1½ tablespoons tamarind concentrate
2 cups pitted sour cherries or frozen dark red cherries
2 cups dried cherries
Juice of 2 lemons
1½ teaspoons ground allspice
Salt and pepper
1½ cups beef stock
1½ cups red wine
2 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and toast the pine nuts by stirring often, in a small dry skillet over medium heat, until lightly brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove to a medium bowl.
2) To make the meatballs: Sauté the onions in the oil in a nonstick frying pan until lightly caramelized, about 20–30 minutes.
3) Add the onions to the pine nuts, then add the ground beef, garlic, Aleppo or Marash pepper, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Break the eggs into the bowl and stir in the tamarind and tomato paste or ketchup, mixing gently with your hands until just combined, then add just enough breadcrumbs for the meat to become clammy.
4) Take about 1½ tablespoons of meat and slap the beef several times into the center of the palm of your hand to emulsify. Shape into small meatballs, about 1¼ inches in diameter. Put on two rimmed baking sheets and bake for about 20 minutes, or until done but still juicy. You should get about 36 meatballs.
5) While the meatballs are baking, make the sauce: Heat the oil in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until transparent, then add the tamarind, pitted sour or frozen cherries, dried cherries, lemon juice, allspice, salt, pepper, beef stock and wine. Simmer together for about 20–25 minutes, until the sauce is slightly thickened.
6) Mix the meatballs with the sauce and serve, sprinkled with chopped parsley or cilantro, over rice.
Note: You can make this dish ahead and freeze if you like. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight, then reheat in a pan, covered, over medium heat until warm.
What Is Tamarind?
Tamarind, whose name comes from the Arabic word meaning “date from India,” is an ancient sweet and sour fruit that actually originated in Africa but traveled very early to India and throughout the Middle East, then was brought by the Arabs and Jews to Spain and by the Spanish to Latin America. Within Jewish communities, you know a dish has Syrian roots if you find tamarind listed in the ingredients.
Often used the way we use tomatoes today, to add acidity, depth and sweetness to a sauce, tamarind has been a lovely flavor addition for centuries in Syrian, Persian, Iraqi, Georgian and Indian Jewish dishes, as well as Sephardic dishes that eventually, in the 1500s, traveled with the Spanish and Portuguese to Mexico, the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America, where it remains very popular today.
The only catch is that tamarind is somewhat difficult to use — it has to be peeled, soaked, seeded and then squeezed through cheese-cloth and mixed with sour salt, lemon juice and/or sugar before being cooked down to a concentrate or paste. (Poopa Dweck’s beautiful book “The Aromas of Aleppo” describes the process.) As soon as tomatoes came from the New World to the Old, the more easily used red tomatoes replaced tamarind in many dishes. The unique flavor and tartness of tamarind, however, is becoming popular again, with easily dissolvable tamarind paste concentrates and bulk tamarind dissolved in a little water now available from India, other parts of Asia, Latin America and even Texas.
Excerpted from “King Solomon’s Table” by Joan Nathan. Copyright © 2017 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.