Albóndigas: A New Mexican Comfort Food | Heating It Up | SantaFe.clm
Sopa de Albondigas in a bowl.

Albóndigas: We’re talking meatballs!

From Morocco’s kefta and Turkey’s köfte, to Germany’s Königsberger klopse, meatballs are beloved around the globe. The version called albóndigas went anywhere in the world colonized by the Spanish. Like just about every other dish that came to New Mexico from elsewhere, cooks here made it their own.

A BOWL OF CLASSIC COMFORT

Spooning into a bowl of albóndigas can feel like a warm hug, and make even a lousy day look a little brighter. In some places, meatballs might be skewered, or sandwiched, or plopped on top of spaghetti. The version that was common to northern Mexico was often in broth, called sopa de albóndigas. That’s the style that became the standard in what became New Mexico, as well.

A sopa or soup can be a starter, but the dish generally has been a hearty centerpiece to meals here. The soup mixture might be more broth-like, or more chile-enriched, either red or green. A tomato base is fairly common, sometimes with vegetables from corn or carrots to green beans.

The luscious little meatballs — be they beef, pork, lamb, veal, or even venison, or some mix of two or more — need some kind of binder mixed in. South of our border, it’s been most common to hold the meat together with egg and rice or masa harina, the nixtamalized flour for corn tortillas. Between Mexico and New Mexico, I’ve come across versions that use saltines, breadcrumbs, or even cornflakes. A delicious one that I stumbled onto in an early 20th century New Mexican cookbook uses the blue corn traditional to this area’s Native Americans.

Some cooks use no more seasoning than salt and pepper, but I’ve been making versions that are inspired from recipes of several generations ago, which include mint and azafran. The idea of mint may sound a bit surprising here, but its use goes back generations in New Mexico cookbooks. It’s particularly refreshing paired with the rich meats.

Azafran, in this case, is not the ultra-expensive saffron, stamens of a particular variety of crocus that grows best in places like Spain, Morocco, and Iran. The Spanish who settled this area looked for a substitute for true saffron and found it in the stamens of the safflower plant. This azafran doesn’t have the full redolence of the European original, but it adds some of the deep color and fragrance associated with the real deal.

TIPS THAT GRANDMA MIGHT NOT HAVE TOLD YOU

To make your own sopa de albóndigas:

  • A mix of meats makes them more interesting. I like lamb, a traditional meat of this area, blended with beef, pork, or both.
  • Mix by hand, just until the ingredients are melded together. Too much handling toughens them.
  • Flavor the albóndigas assertively. If you haven’t tried a recipe before, cook up one meatball first, and taste. Then season more if needed.
  • I’ve never had trouble with the meatballs in the recipe below falling apart when cooking. However, if you have that problem with this or any other version, pop them in the fridge for 30 minutes before frying.
  • While theoretically, you could simply poach the albóndigas in the broth, skipping the frying step — don’t! The flavor and texture are so much better with the nicely browned surface from frying, prior to simmering in the broth to finish.

Sopa de Albóndigas recipe

(From Tasting New Mexico © 2012 Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison)

NOTE: New Mexican azafran and blue cornmeal can be found at the Santa Fe School of Cooking or ordered online from santafeschoolofcooking.com.

Serves 6 to 8

Albóndigas

New Mexican azafran can be used in albondigas in place of saffron.
New Mexican azafran can be used in albóndigas as a less expensive alternative to saffron.

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ small onion, minced

1 small celery rib, chopped fine

1½ pounds ground lamb, beef, or veal or a combination

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons blue cornmeal

1 large egg

1 to 2 teaspoons dried mint

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon New Mexican azafrán (safflower stamens)

 

Broth

2 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

½ small onion, minced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

14- to 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice, preferably a “fire-roasted” variety

¾ cup chopped, peeled, roasted New Mexican green chile (thawed frozen can be substituted for fresh)

2 cups beef or chicken stock

2 cups water

1 teaspoon New Mexican azafrán (safflower stamens)

Salt

Fresh mint leaves or sprigs

INSTRUCTIONS

For albóndigas

Warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and celery and saute until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, mix together the meat, cornmeal, and egg. Scrape the onion and celery mixture into the meat followed by the remaining ingredients and stir together lightly.

Form ¾- to 1-inch meatballs, packing the meat together just lightly. If the meat mixture is sticking to your hands, rinse your hands regularly with cold water. You should end up with about 48 small meatballs.

For broth

Warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Sear the meatballs in batches that aren’t crowded in the pan, until they are nicely brown, turning them frequently but gently. Drain with a slotted spoon and set aside on a platter.

Reduce the heat to medium and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Stir in the onion and saute several minutes until translucent, then add the flour and cook for another minute, stirring.

Stir in the tomatoes and juice, green chile and any juice, stock, water, azafrán, meatballs, and any of their juices. Bring just to a boil, the reduce the heat to a medium-low , cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until the flavors blend and the meatballs are cooked through. Salt to taste.

Ladle into broad shallow soup bowls. If you wish cut thin mint leave into very thin ribbons and shower over the bowls, or garnish each with a sprig of mint leaves. Serve hot.

Cheryl Alters Jamison and red chile ristras.Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison.

Read Cheryl Alters Jamison’s bio here!
This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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