Passover dishes from Middle East, with dashes of Mexico

Our holiday meals are often a vivid expression of who we are and where we come from. The table is a place we showcase our heritage – making the dishes of our past, perhaps with a tweak or two to suit contemporary tastes.

When Margot Alfie celebrates Passover this year, it will be her twenty-sixth Passover in the United States.

Alfie’s grandparents emigrated from Syria to Mexico early in the 1900s. “My parents and I were born in Mexico. Therefore we are Mexican, Syrian and also Jewish. Growing up in a Middle Eastern Mexican home, I developed a very unique culinary taste. Sometimes we had a Syrian meal, sometimes a Mexican meal, but sometimes we had an absolutely delicious fusion of the two.”

Alfie came to Atlanta in 1990, and four years ago she turned her own flair for fusion cooking into a business, Cooking with Margot. A portion of her earnings are donated to Israel through the Jewish National Fund. She says she missed cooking when she became an empty nester, with two daughters out of college and into their careers and the youngest child, a son, off to college. Friends begged her to teach them Syrian recipes and one thing led to another. Now she teaches classes, offers private lessons and is available for catering.

“The two cultures – Mexico and Syria – were mixed in my mother’s and grandmothers’ kitchens. Even now, some days of the week my mother only serves Middle Eastern food. Other days it’s only Mexican. But sometimes with a dish like kibbeh, we eat it with guacamole, which makes it Mexican and is delicious.”

The traditional foods for Passover for someone of her heritage would always include kibbeh, widely considered the national dish of Syria. Made with a mixture of spiced ground beef and cracked wheat for most of the year, for Passover kibbeh is made with matzah meal instead of cracked wheat. The stiff dough makes a sturdy wrapper for kibbeh patted into a small oval or football shape, hollowed out with a finger to make a hole for a spiced ground meat filling and then fried. “My mother always made the football shapes and fried them.”

The same recipe works just as well for a less labor-intensive dish with the kibbeh layered in a baking dish and then cut into diamonds for serving.

Moving to Atlanta, one of the biggest surprises was finding that charoset, a must-have dish for the Passover table, was most often a spiced apple mixture. “My friends were totally amazed that we made our charoset with dates or raisins.”

The Hillel sandwich is another Passover tradition. Named for a first-century rabbi, it puts several elements from the Seder plate between slices of matzah and is eaten as a sandwich. “In my family, we have romaine lettuce on the Seder plate, so our Hillel sandwich is made with matzah, romaine lettuce, charoset and bitter herbs - usually endive or escarole - and that’s a sandwich my children love.”

The boiled egg on the Seder plate is often chopped and mixed with saltwater and eaten as part of the Passover meal. In Alfie’s family the egg is sliced and sprinkled with salt and ground allspice. “And with lime juice, of course,” she says in homage to their Mexican roots.

Alfie has lightened her family’s traditional dishes, using ground turkey for the kibbeh instead of the ground lamb or ground beef that would have been her grandmothers’ and mother’s choices. And for her Passover dessert, one favorite is her creation of truffle-like balls of cocoa and ground nuts, only lightly sweetened.

More than the dishes have changed as time has passed. The family’s long-held tradition is to celebrate the first night of Passover in the home of friends, but on the second night, they would eat at home serving their Syrian favorites.

This year Alfie will still celebrate the first night out with friends, but the second night brings a tweak that incorporates the newest technology. “I will be having the Seder at my house this year and my son and my daughters will be part of the blessings and meal via Skype.” But the dishes at the table will be the Syrian favorites that connect the family with its Jewish-Syrian-Mexican heritage.

Is this the year to try adding a few Middle Eastern flavors to your Passover table?

Date Charoset

Charoset is a non-negotiable part of the Passover Seder, symbolizing the mortar used by slaves in Egypt. In Ashkenazi tradition, it’s most often made with apples. But for Alfie, charoset isn’t charoset if it’s not made with dates, the ubiquitous fruit of the Middle East.

Charosets also frequently include nuts and cinnamon. “My grandmother made this with chopped nuts and that’s how I like it, but my kids? One prefers it with nuts, the other doesn’t. So make this to suit your family,” she says. And for the sweet wine? The traditional favorites of Manischewitz or Mogen David work perfectly.

1 pound pitted dates

1/3 cup sweet red wine

1 cup chopped nuts, optional

Pinch of cinnamon, if desired

Pecan halves, for garnish

In a medium saucepan, combine dates and enough water to cover by at least one inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer over low heat until dates are soft. The more dried the dates are to start, the longer they will take to cook. When dates are tender, remove from heat and drain all water. Move cooked dates to the jar of a blender or bowl of a food processor. Process until texture is completely smooth. Move pureed dates to a bowl and allow to cool. Stir in wine and if using cinnamon, add it at this time. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. May be made up to 1 week in advance. When ready to serve, stir in nuts, put mixture in serving bowl and garnish with pecan halves. Makes: 3 cups with chopped nuts

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Margot Alfie, Cooking with Margot.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 91 calories (percent of calories from fat, 32), 1 gram protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 3 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 3 milligrams sodium.

Kibbeh Matza

Kibbeh is often called the national dish of Lebanon, Syria and other countries of the Middle East. The Lebanese and Syrian diasporas brought it to the New World. Traditionally made with cracked wheat, known as bulgur, Alfie makes it with matza meal for Passover.

In the Middle East, kibbeh is generally made with ground lamb, and that’s how Alfie’s grandmother prepared it. Her family prepared it with ground beef as she grew up in Mexico and now she prefers to make it with ground turkey. Since ground turkey has less fat to moisten the kibbeh, you’ll want to add plenty of water while baking.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 small onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)

1 1/2 pounds ground meat, divided

1/4 cup pine nuts, optional

2 teaspoons allspice, divided

Kosher salt

1 (16-ounce) canister matza meal

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

2 1/2 cups plus 1/4 cup water, or as needed

Tahina Sauce (see recipe)

Prepare filling: In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Add 1 pound meat and continue to cook until meat is cooked through. Stir frequently, breaking meat up into small pieces. If mixture appears dry, add up to 1/4 cup water. Continue cooking until liquid is almost completely gone. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Stir in pine nuts, if using, and 1 teaspoon allspice. Season to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready for next step. May be made up to 1 day in advance.

When ready to bake, preheat oven 350 degrees. Grease 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, whisk together matza meal, paprika, cumin, white pepper and remaining teaspoon allspice. Add remaining 1/2 pound ground meat and using your hands, evenly distribute meat in the mixture. Stir in 2 1/2 cups water in half-cup increments, adding enough water to make a dough the consistency of stiff cookie dough. You want the dough to be evenly moist but not too loose.

Pat half the dough into the prepared baking dish, making sure the dish is evenly covered. Cover dough with cooked filling, distributing evenly. Pat the remaining dough into small patties and place on top of the filling side-by-side until entire surface is covered. Use any remaining dough to fill in gaps. Your goal is an even layer of topping. Use a butter knife to cut the kibbeh diagonally to make a diamond pattern, or vertically and horizontally to make squares. Pour remaining 1/4 cup water over kibbeh and cover baking dish with foil. Bake 1 hour. Uncover and brush with remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and return to oven to crisp top. Remove from oven and serve hot, warm or at room temperature with Tahina Sauce. Serves: 12

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Margot Alfie, Cooking with Margot.

Per serving made with ground turkey: 291 calories (percent of calories from fat, 36), 14 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 11 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 45 milligrams cholesterol, 57 milligrams sodium.

Tahina Sauce

1/2 cup tahini

Juice of 3 limes

1 garlic clove, pressed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/3 cup cold water, or more if needed

Cumin, if desired

Olive oil, paprika and pine nuts, for garnish

In a medium bowl, stir together tahini, lime juice, garlic and salt. Add cold water, a little bit at a time, until the mixture is the texture of heavy cream. Taste for seasoning. The sauce should be slightly tart. Add cumin if desired. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. May be made up to 1 week in advance. When ready to serve, move sauce to a serving bowl and garnish with olive oil, paprika and pine nuts. Makes: 1 cup

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Margot Alfie, Cooking with Margot.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 48 calories (percent of calories from fat, 73), 1 gram protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 4 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 79 milligrams sodium.

Salata Arabi

This basic Syrian salad is appropriate for any meal. No shortcuts here. All vegetables should be hand chopped. And if you’re a purist, the tomatoes would be peeled.

6 Kirby cucumbers, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 6 cups)

4 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 3 cups)

3 scallions, thinly sliced (about 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/3 cup olive oil

Juice of 1 lime

Kosher salt to taste

Pitted Kalamata olives, if desired

In a large bowl, combine cucumbers, tomatoes, scallions and parsley. Toss together. Add olive oil and lime juice and season to taste. If desired, add olives. Cover and refrigerate up to 2 hours in advance. Makes: 9 cups

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Margot Alfie, Cooking with Margot.

Per 1/2-cup serving: 52 calories (percent of calories from fat, 72), 1 gram protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 4 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 9 milligrams sodium.

Cocoa-Nut Balls

This mix of nuts, cocoa and a little sweetening is a perfect Passover treat. Alfie grew up with the version made with pecans only, but after coming to Atlanta and tasting almonds for the first time, adapted her family recipe to use half pecans and half almonds.

“Be ready to have very messy hands,” says Alfie. The mixture will coat your hands as you roll the individual balls. To help cut down on the stickiness, she recommends coating your hands with coconut oil, butter or even just water as you prepare to roll the balls.

Since the balls contain raw egg white, make sure to refrigerate them before serving and keep any leftovers refrigerated. If you have concerns about raw egg white, use pasteurized eggs to make this dish.

2 1/2 cups finely chopped nuts (pecans, almonds or a mixture)

1/2 cup cocoa

1/4 cup powdered sugar

Pinch cloves

2 egg whites

Granulated sugar, for rolling balls

In a medium bowl, whisk together nuts, cocoa, powdered sugar and cloves. In a small bowl, whip egg whites to a firm peak, then stir into nut mixture.

Pour about 1 cup granulated sugar into a pie plate or dinner plate.

Moisten hands with water, coconut oil or butter and roll nut mixture into balls the size of a large grape. Place balls in granulated sugar and roll to coat. When balls are ready, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes: 40

— Adapted from a recipe provided by Margot Alfie, Cooking with Margot.

Per Cocoa-Nut Ball: 69 calories (percent of calories from fat, 67), 2 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 4 milligrams sodium.

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