a large pot filled with meatballs and beans, greenery sprinkled on top
Keftes Garaz, Syrian Meatballs with Cherries and Tamarind, adapted from Joan Nathan's recipe

Around the world of Jewish cooking: First stop, Syria

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Joan Nathan is seated, drinking red wine
Cookbook author Joan Nathan speaking at Urban Adamah in Berkeley

Joan Nathan, a prolific Jewish food writer with a taste for history and storytelling, was in Berkeley recently to introduce her 12th cookbook, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.” Many of the more than 170 recipes were obtained firsthand from her travels.

“I started out writing a book about new American Jewish food,” Nathan said during the event at Urban Adamah. But on a trip to India, she went to the synagogue in Kochi (Cochin) and was fascinated that Jews reportedly had been there since the “time of King Solomon.”

That revelation sparked her interest in how Jewish food was shaped by merchants, trade routes and the diaspora. “I ended up handing in a book very different than I planned,” she said.

Try Nathan’s Keftes Garaz, Syrian Meatballs with Cherries and Tamarind. The recipe is exotic but the preparation is straightforward. The dish can be made in advance, frozen, defrosted in the refrigerator and heated in a covered pan over medium heat until warm.

Keftes Garaz, Syrian Meatballs with Cherries and Tamarind

Serves 6-8

Adapted from “King Solomon’s Table” by Joan Nathan

For the meatballs:

½ cup pine nuts (see notes)
1 large sweet onion, diced
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 lbs. ground beef (see notes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp. ground Aleppo pepper (see notes)
½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground allspice
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
Salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. tamarind concentrate (see notes)
2 tsp. tomato paste
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs

For the sauce:

¼ cup olive oil
1½ onions, diced
1½ Tbs. tamarind concentrate
2 cups pitted sour cherries or frozen dark red cherries
2 cups dried cherries (see notes)
Juice of 2 lemons
1½ tsp. ground allspice
Salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
1½ cups beef stock
1½ cups red wine
2 Tbs. chopped parsley or cilantro

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Toast nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until lightly brown. Remove to medium bowl.

Make the meatballs. Sauté sweet onions in oil over medium-low heat until lightly caramelized, about 20-30 minutes. Add onions, beef, garlic, Aleppo pepper, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, salt and pepper to bowl with nuts. Stir in eggs, tamarind and tomato paste. Mix gently by hand until just combined and then add just enough breadcrumbs for the meat to become “clammy” and no longer wet or overly sticky.

Pinch off batches of about 1½ Tbs. of the meat and slap it several times in the palm of your hand to “emulsify” and blend. Shape into meatballs about 1¼ inches in diameter. Repeat. There should be about 36 meatballs. Put them on two rimmed baking sheets and bake about 20 minutes, or until done but still juicy.

Make the sauce while the meatballs are baking. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Add onions and sauté until transparent. Add tamarind, both types of cherries, lemon juice, allspice, salt pepper, beef stock and wine. Simmer for 20-25 minutes until sauce is slightly thickened.

Mix the meatballs with the sauce. Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.

Notes: I substituted blanched, slivered almonds for the pine nuts and used half beef and half lamb. Aleppo is a Syrian and Turkish pepper available in many spice, specialty and international markets, as is tamarind concentrate. Look for pitted, unsweetened, dried sour cherries if possible. I kept some of the sauce aside to pass separately when serving the dish.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is faithkramer.com. Contact her at [email protected].