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Four Women, Three Countries, One Yom Kippur Recipe

Four Women, Three Countries, One Yom Kippur Recipe


Shared by Ayala Hodak
Recipe Roots: Tehran and Damavand, Iran > Holon, Israel > Tenafly, New Jersey

When Ayala Hodak, the co-owner of New York Israeli restaurant Taboon, moved from Israel to the U.S. 21 years ago, her friends became her adopted local family. She hosts them for Yom Kippur break fast, preparing a menu centered around one dish: shifteh berenji, a meatball-laden soup made tangy with dried Persian limes and sweetened slightly with carrots. She serves it after breaking the fast on challah, hard boiled eggs, and her family’s take on faloodeh, a cold sweet dish made with apples and rosewater. 

“Every year when we eat it at Yom Kippur, my husband says: ‘Wow, this is so good; you should make it more often,’” Ayala says. She responds: “It’s not going to taste the same.” It’s a treat, reserved exclusively for the holiday. She’s not quite sure why, but says that maybe it offers her a unique connection to home. 

Ayala’s mother, Yafa (Maheen) Saadia.

Ayala’s mother, Yafa (Maheen) Saadia.

The shifteh berenji is a blend of recipes from no fewer than three matriarchs: her mother and both of her grandmothers. Maheen, Ayala’s mother moved to Israel from Tehran when she was only 13. She arrived with two of her siblings with the help of a youth Aliyah movement called Aliyat Hanoar. There, she was sent to a kibbutz and given the Israeli name Yafa. When she got married as a young woman to a Persian man, her mother-in-law Dalia taught her to cook Persian dishes from their shared homeland. 

Yafa’s cooking became a blend of Dalia’s recipes and those she remembered making as a young girl with her mother in Tehran. “When you’re a good cook, you don’t have to have a recipe to make something,” Ayala explains. “As you make it once, twice, three times, you get the flavors that you feel are the right flavors.” It was that way with much of Yafa’s cooking and, Ayala believes, with the shifteh berenji. The recipe was a blend of Dalia’s and memories of the one Yafa’s mother made in Iran. Yafa adapted it though, adding prunes to the dish, hiding them in the center of the meatballs as a surprise for each diner. 

As Ayala built a new life for herself in New York, she missed the recipe around Yom Kippur and called her mother for it 20 years ago. “Since then I make it every year,” Ayala adds. This year, included, of course. 

Shifteh Berenji (Persian Soup with Prune Stuffed Meatballs)

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

Photos by Penny De Los Santos

This recipe was written with leftovers in mind and makes more meatballs than can comfortably fit into the pot at one time, about 20 in total. Feel free to cut the meatball portion in half, but we think the best approach is to cook the meatballs in batches and immediately reserve half of them for serving with any leftover soup the next day.

Serves: 10 to 12
Time: 3½ hours, plus overnight soaking time

For the soup:
1 cup dried small white beans, such as navy beans, soaked in 4 cups of water overnight
1 pound beef stew meat, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
10 dried black Persian limes, halved 
6 chicken necks or backs (or 1½ pounds chicken thighs and drumsticks)
2 small whole yellow onions, peeled
2 large carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
3 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 medium celery root, peeled and cut into 2-inch by ¼-inch pieces
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

For the meatballs:
1 pound ground white meat chicken
1 pound ground beef
1 large yellow onion, finely diced 
1½ cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
1½ cups finely chopped cilantro (1 bunch)
1¼ cups finely chopped parsley (1 bunch)
¼ cup finely chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces pitted prunes (1¼ cup)

1. Place the beef stew meat in a large Dutch oven and cover it with 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, skimming any foam from the surface. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 1 hour, skimming occasionally. 

2. Place the dried Persian limes in a medium heat-proof bowl and cover with 2 cups of boiling water. Let sit until ready to use.

3. Meanwhile, make the meatballs: Combine the ground chicken, ground beef, onion, rice, herbs, tomato paste, cumin, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and mix evenly. 

4. Line a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper. Pinch off ¼ cup of the meat mixture and roll it into a large ball. Make an indentation in the center of the ball with your thumb and press a prune into the indentation. Fold the meat mixture over the prune and reshape it into a ball. Place it on the prepared tray and repeat with the remaining meat mixture and two-thirds of the prunes. Cover with a damp towel and set aside.

5. Drain the soaked beans and add them to the pot with 8 cups of water. Increase the heat to high and bring the beef and bean mixture to a boil over high heat. Skim any foam off the top and reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the chicken necks and simmer for 30 minutes.

6. Drain the Persian limes, reserving 1 cup of soaking liquid, and add them to the pot along with their reserved liquid. Cover and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the whole onions, carrots, celery, celery root, tomato paste, cumin, paprika, salt, and pepper.

7. Working in 2 or 3 batches, gently slide the meatballs into the soup, adding more water to cover them if needed. Cover the pot and cook for 20 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer half of the cooked meatballs to a large resealable container and let them cool completely before refrigerating. 

8. Add the remaining prunes to the pot and continue to cook until the vegetables are tender and the flavors have melded, 15 to 20 minutes. Reseason the soup with salt and pepper, to taste.

9. To serve, place one meatball in a shallow bowl and top with some of the vegetables, beef, beans, prunes, and broth.

Make ahead: The soup can be made in advance and stored in an airtight resealable container in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days. To serve, bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and add as many meatballs as desired. Continue to cook until the meatballs are cooked or heated through (if reheating), about 20 minutes. The meatballs can be formed in advance and stored in an airtight resealable container in the fridge for 1 day. To cook, bring the soup to a simmer over medium-low heat and add one-third to one-half of the meatballs. Cover the pot and cook for 20 minutes. Remove and repeat with the remaining meatballs, or serve them immediately with the soup.

Try more of Ayala’s family recipes:
Maheen’s Persian Herbed Omelette
Faloodeh, a Sweet To Break the Fast
Ghormeh Sabzi, a Persian Herb and Beef Stew

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