Syrian seder recipes revive delicious memories

Jennifer Felicia Abadi’s Passover memories hover between the matzah balls and briskets from her father’s family — and the mint and pistachios that flavored her mother’s and grandmother’s cooking. Intoxicated by the aroma of exotic spices, she also savored stories about her grandmother’s youth in Aleppo, Syria, and the Syrian Jewish world of Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, where her mother grew up.

Three decades ago, her mother and aunt gathered a substantial number of their recipes and placed them in a three-ring binder, which moved back and forth between their homes.

In her 20s, Abadi decided to throw dinner parties and introduce her friends to Syrian food. She consulted the black binder and realized that many recipes’ ingredients were missing and directions unclear.

She decided to flesh out this valuable recipe collection, starting where her mother and aunt had left off. The result was “A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen” (The Harvard Common Press, 2002).

“At first, my grandmother cooked without explaining what she was doing, making it impossible for me to write down recipes,” she says. “My initial attempts to help her were met with resistance. As I earned my stripes, her resistance waned, and advice came fast and furiously.”

Although Abadi was exposed to Syrian food from an early age, she always felt like an outsider looking in. Unlike many of her Sephardic relatives who lived in Brooklyn or Deal, N.J., Abadi, whose father was Ashkenazi, grew up in Manhattan, somewhat secluded from the Syrian Jewish world.

Her grandmother Fritzie hosted Passovers for years, but to please everyone at her table, she served a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisine.

“My grandmother merged two seders into one,” says Abadi. “We always had matzah ball and spinach-mint soup.”

Yet as warm as these Passovers were, Abadi eagerly questioned her mother, Annette Hidary, about the Syrian seders of her youth.

“Every year on the afternoon of Passover eve, my father went to temple,” says Hidary. “He came home and gave me a sweet wrapped inside of a napkin. I received it, because I was the firstborn.”

This sweet symbolized how the Angel of Death had spared the firstborn son of the Hebrew slaves, while he visited sorrow upon the Egyptians during the last of the Twelve Plagues. Because Abadi had no brothers, she received the treat, which could be anything from sponge cake to macaroons or pistachio cookies.

“During seders on Ocean Parkway, the men sat separately from the women,” says Hidary, explaining that her grandfather, a rabbi, led the seder from the head of a long table, flanked by uncles and male cousins. During much of the ceremony, the women busily clustered in the kitchen overseeing the meal’s many courses.

Because lamb shanks are integral to seder plates, Syrians customarily serve them as an entree, accompanied by rice, which is permitted in the Sephardi tradition.

“As my grandfather read the 12 plagues in Hebrew, his tone grew serious,” says Hidary. “One of the children stood by his side holding a pot, as he poured a generous splash of wine inside for each plague. The act was so intense that the women stopped their work to watch. He really dramatized the severity of the penalties. We children got the message that our enemies were severely punished.”

One of the seder favorites was the traditional Syrian charoset, a sweet medley of dried fruits.

“My mother loves charoset,” says Abadi. “During the seder, we spread it on matzah, making sandwiches. Throughout the week, we eat it for breakfast with cream cheese or yogurt, and consume it by the spoonful for dessert.”

Grandma Fritzie always prepared huge amounts of charoset, because after seders, she sent each family home with a jar.

“We kept up that tradition,” says Abadi. “Today my mother hands charoset to cousins on their way out the door.”

Syrian Charoset

12 large Medjool dates or 20 regular-size dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
10 dried figs (Calimyrna are best), coarsely chopped and stems discarded
10 dried whole Turkish apricots, coarsely chopped
10 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups cold water
1/4 cup sweet Passover wine
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ cup coarsely crushed walnuts

Combine the fruit and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer covered for about 30 minutes. Stir every 10 minutes or so, making sure that the fruit is not burning or sticking to the bottom of the pot. (If the fruit starts to boil up again, lower the heat slightly.) Once the fruit becomes soft and well blended, remove from the heat and mix in the wine, cinnamon and walnuts. Serve at room temperature.

Shoorbah m’Sbanech (Spinach-Mint Soup) | Serves 2-4

1 lb. fresh spinach
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
3/4 cup coarsely chopped yellow onions
2 tsp. minced garlic
4 cups cold water
1/3 cup long-grain white rice, uncooked (Ashkenazim can omit on Passover)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried mint leaves

Rinse spinach leaves thoroughly in cold water to remove dirt. Dry well in a salad spinner or use paper towels to squeeze out excess water. Coarsely chop spinach, discarding the stems. Set aside. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat and cook the onions, stirring until golden and soft, 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring until golden, about 1 minute. Be careful not to let it burn. Add the spinach to the pot, one handful at a time. Toss to coat with the oil and onions. When all of the spinach has been added and mixed, cover and let steam over low heat until the spinach is cooked down and wet in texture, about 10 minutes. Add the water, rice and salt. Add the mint by crushing it between the palms of your hands. Mix well. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the flavors meld, 20-25 minutes. Ladle soup into individual bowls. Serve hot or cold.

Zeroah (Lamb Shanks) | Serves 4

4 lamb shanks
4 large garlic cloves, halved
generous dash of salt
generous grindings of black pepper
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
generous dash of paprika
2 1/2 to 3 cups cold water
1 large lemon, cut into 8 wedges
mint jelly

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse each lamb shank well under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels. With the tip of a sharp knife, make 2 deep slits on either side of each shank. Stuff slits with half a garlic clove. Sprinkle the shanks generously with salt and pepper and rub into meat. Sprinkle each shank with 1/2 Tbs. of oil and rub in as well.

Place the shanks in a deep, ovenproof casserole or roasting pan and sprinkle generously with paprika. Add 2 cups of the cold water, cover tightly and place in the center of the oven. After 30 minutes, turn the shanks over, add 1/2 cup cold water, and continue to bake for an additional 1 1/2 to 2 hours, turning meat every 30 minutes. Add 1/2 cup more cold water, if the liquid appears to be drying up. The meat is done when very tender and falling off the bone.

Spoon the juices in the roasting pan over the shanks as you serve them. Serve hot with rice, lemon wedges and mint jelly on the side.

Ka’ik ib’Fis’dok (Flourless Pistachio Cookies) | Makes 12-18

1 1/2 cups shelled pistachios
2 large egg whites
3/4 cup granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the pistachios in a food processor and blend until finely ground. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed with an electric hand-held mixer, until stiff peaks form. Gently pour sugar over stiff egg whites and fold in with a wooden spoon. Add the pistachios and fold in with a wooden spoon, until fully incorporated.

One tablespoon at a time, place the pistachio dough on a greased baking sheet, leaving 1 inch between each cookie. Bake until lightly golden around the edges, about 15 minutes. Cool 30 minutes before removing from the sheet or cookies may break.