When I’m in Brooklyn, I turn to Syrian Jewish cooking from my guy’s Syrian Italian family. I love making their traditional favorites: yebra — stuffed grape leaves draped in a sweet-tart tamarind sauce, sambousek stuffed with muenster cheese and dotted with sesame seeds, and these keftes. When I was introduced to them nine years ago, they were unlike anything I’d ever had.
The keftes are seasoned with baharat or allspice and Aleppo pepper. While cooking, they plump up ever so slightly, like a dumpling, in a rich sauce of tamarind, tomato paste, fresh lemon juice, and spices. These sweet and tangy meatballs are served at almost every holiday table. This recipe is designed to feed a crowd, but can also be cut in half for a smaller portion.
Note: There are variations of keftes throughout the Middle East. Use more or less Aleppo pepper according to your spice tolerance. The amount of tamarind concentrate, lemon juice, and tomato paste varies from one family to the next. I recommend tasting the sauce as you go along the first time you make these.
For the meatballs:
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil, for frying
- 3 lbs ground beef
- 6 large eggs
- 1 1⁄2-2 cups toasted pine nuts
- 3⁄4 cup unsalted matzah meal, plus extra in a bowl for rolling
- 1 1⁄2 Tbsp kosher salt
- 1 heaping Tbsp baharat or allspice
- 1 Tbsp Aleppo pepper
- 1 cup fresh herbs (such as parsley, cilantro, dill, or mint), finely chopped
For the sauce:
- olive oil
- 1⁄2 tsp Aleppo pepper (or more for extra heat)
- 1⁄2 tsp allspice
- 4 cups water
- 1⁄2 cup plus 2 Tbsp good quality tamarind concentrate
- 4 oz or 1⁄2 cup tomato paste
- juice from 1 lemon, about 3 Tbsp
- salt, to taste
- sugar, to taste (optional)
- Combine all the meatball ingredients minus the oil and, with wet hands, gently form walnut-sized balls. Place them on baking sheets.
- Roll each meatball in matzah meal.
- Over medium-high heat, add vegetable oil to a pan and brown the meatballs on all sides. Brown in batches so as to not overcrowd the pan. Set aside.
- In a separate pot over medium heat, add a generous drizzle of olive oil and the Aleppo pepper. Once the oil has turned a reddish color, add the allspice and the rest of the sauce ingredients. Stir and let simmer for a few minutes.
- Add the meatballs and simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste the sauce to see if it needs adjusting. The meatballs should plump up a little when done, and the sauce should thicken.
- Serve with rice.