Keftes garaz: Syrian meatballs with cherries and tamarind
One of the great gifts of the Syrian Jews to gastronomy is this meatball dish. Flavoured with tamarind sauce 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 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 dark sweet cherries are fine. You can make this dish ahead and freeze. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight, then reheat in a pan, covered, over medium heat. (Editor’s note: if you can’t find Aleppo pepper mix equal parts of dried chilli flakes and sweet paprika; larger supermarkets sell frozen cherries.)
50g pine nuts
1 large onion, diced (about 350g) 2 tbsp olive oil 907g ground beef 2 cloves garlic, minced ¼ tsp ground Aleppo or Marash pepper ½ tsp ground cumin 1 tsp ground allspice ¼ tsp cinnamon Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 large eggs 1 tsp tamarind concentrate 2 tsp tomato paste or ketchup 25g breadcrumbs, fresh
For the sauce
59ml olive oil 1½ onions, diced (165g) 1½ tbsp tamarind concentrate 440g pitted sour cherries or frozen dark red cherries 440g dried cherries Juice of 2 lemons 1½ tsp ground allspice Salt and pepper 355ml beef stock 355ml red wine 2 tbsp chopped parsley or coriander
Preheat the oven to 180°C and toast the pine nuts by stirring often in a small, dry frying pan over medium heat, until lightly brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove to a medium bowl.
To make the meatballs: sauté the onions in the oil in a nonstick frying pan until lightly caramelised, about 20 to 30 minutes.
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.
Take about 1½ tablespoons of meat and slap the beef several times into the centre of the palm of your hand to emulsify. Shape into small meatballs, about 4cm 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.
While the meatballs are baking, make the sauce — heat the oil in a medium pan 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 to 25 minutes, until the sauce is slightly thickened.
Mix the meatballs with the sauce and serve, sprinkled with chopped parsley or coriander, over rice.