Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mexican Meatball Soup - from the lighter side of Mexican Cooking

In Southern California the weeks between Winter and Spring aren't very inspiring for fresh vegetable soups. Even the open air markets are looking boring this time of year. But the other day, while shopping at Trader Joe's, I got a tickler as I spied a wonderful little window sill planter with baby fresh herbs - thyme, oregano and mint, appropriately labeled the 'Mexican Meatball Soup' assortment. Now this is a great idea - a very light broth soup, with lots of vegetables which are happily almost always in season, and savory soft meatballs. The herbs are essential for the meatballs and the broth, the chunky vegetables, like carrots, squash, zucchini and potatoes are garnished with cilantro and fresh lime. This soup is definitely both fresh and hearty.

Sopa de Albóndigas, like all good ethnic dishes, is made so many different ways in Mexico - variations reflecting regional ingredients and tastes, family traditions and just plain widely different approaches. I found recipes that had corn and coyote squash with lots of tomatoes and spices, while other recipes used tomato paste and chopped green chiles in a stronger beef broth.

My direct influences were delicious versions I had in local family style Mexican cafes. Really excellent, if you're ever in the area of Half Moon Bay, is the soup on the menu at La Famiglia Mexican, on the Cabrillo Hwy just south of the town. The broth was light but flavorful, the vegetables just right, even if the meatballs were a bit too large. Another favorite is the Vallarta Restaurant in Fillmore, California, where the meatballs are soft and smaller, and again, the soup features an ungreasy light and spicy broth.

I also checked the recipe in Encarnacion's Kitchen, the wonderful historical cookbook documenting Mexican recipes from nineteenth century California. I found that Encarnacion's meatballs were a little too rich - she adds minced green onions, garlic and some chopped up tomatoes, with some lard or butter, more egg and breadcrumbs along with the cornmeal paste. While almost all recipes I came across used oregano in the meatballs, Encarnacion just has parsley, and parsley only for the soup garnish as well. In general, Encarnacion's recipes are less spiced that cooking south of the border. She clearly had already adopted many of the gentler seasoning predilections of the Europeans in her community around San Jose.

And here is the recipe for Sopa de Albondigas or Meatball Soup:

Sopa de Albondigas - The Recipe

Mexican Meatball Soup is a very light broth soup, with lots of vegetables that are happily almost always in season, and savory soft meatballs. Herbs are essential for the meatballs and the broth - fresh oregano or dried, some tarragon, mint and thyme for the broth. The vegetables, cut larger than usual, like carrots, squash, zucchini and potatoes, and the soup is garnished at serving with cilantro and fresh lime. This soup is definitely both fresh and hearty.

Getting Started:
As always, broth is key. I started early in the day with a light chicken broth - a whole small chicken simmered with celery, carrot chunks, a medium onion studded with clove, lots of parsely, a couple of pinches of dried tarragon and a tsp. of salt. You can always add more salt and pepper later.

While the broth is simmering, cook up a cup of rice, part of which will be used in the meatballs, and the rest will go into the soup

Still not ready to make soup: the meatballs should be started a good hour before the soup is assembled. This gives the meat and spices a chance to bond. The meatballs loosely covered can rest in a cool place or in the refrigerator for an hour or two.
Once the broth and meatballs are prepped and ready, the vegetables take little time to prepare. The soup itself, with vegetables and meatballs, doesn't need more than a 30 minute simmer. While this soup tastes wonderful the second day (just like a minestrone), longer initial cooking won't add a thing. This soup needs to showcase the freshness of the vegetables and herbs, and with overcooking, the root vegetables get too sweet and the herbs turn bitter.

The Broth

1 small soup chicken, washed and trimmed of excess skin and fat

2-3 qts water

1 medium onion, studded with 2 or 3 cloves

2 carrots, cut in chunks

2 celery stalks and some celery leaves, cut into 2 inch pieces

8 - 10 parsley stems

2 stalks of fresh tarragon, or 1 heaping teaspoon of dried

1 tsp salt

Put the chicken in a stock pot, add water and bring to a boil. Salt water, and as foam forms, skim as much as you can. When foam subsides, add vegetables and herbs, lower heat to a bare simmer and continue cooking 1-1/2 hrs, or until chicken is well poached, with meat falling of the bone. Remove chicken to a plate to cool, then strain the broth through a fine strainer.

The Meatballs

1/2 lb good ground beef. Sirloin is great - avoid very lean chopped beef.

1/2 lb good ground pork or turkey. Pork + sirloin is a great flavor combo - turkey is 2nd best.

1/4 cup yellow corn meal

1/4 cup milk

1/3 cup cooked rice

1 egg

1 tsp. cumin

1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano (use less dry)

1 Tbsp. minced parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Mix the corn meal and milk. Let stand 5 minutes. Beat the egg and add to the corn meal and milk. Put the meats in a bowl and work with a fork to break down the meat into a fine mash. Add the seasonings, rice and herbs and continue to work with a fork. Add the egg-cornmeal mixture and continue to work meat into a uniform mass. Form meat into 1 inch balls - you should have about 20. Arrange on a plate, covering loosely with plastic wrap and set aside in a cool place for a goo hour or two.

The Vegetables

2 Mexican zucchini squash, halved lengthwise and thick sliced

2 Carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into 1/4 inch slices

1/2 Butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 inch dice

2 - 3 medium potatoes - California whites or reds are best - peeled and cut into 1 inch dice

1 medium onion, sliced in 1/4 inch thick rounds

1 cup cooked rice

1 cup canned diced tomatoes with some juice

1 sprig fresh spearmint

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 - 3 sprigs fresh oregano

Chopped Cilantro and lime to garnish

Heat broth to boiling, add the onions and carrots, and once the water comes back to a boil, add the potatoes, squash, zucchini, tomatoes and herbs. Drop in the meatballs and simmer at gentle rolling boil for about 25 minutes. Stir in cook rice.
Serve the soup with the chopped cilantro and squeeze fresh lime into each bowl.

Soyer's Soup - Soup for the Poor, or Poor Soup

Alexis Soyer claimed that a meal of his soup once a day, together with a biscuit was sufficient to sustain the strength of a strong healthy man. Not everyone agreed. He was somewhat ridiculed in Punch, where it was said that Soyer's soup was not Soup for the Poor, but rather, Poor Soup!

Here is the recipe he published:

12-1⁄2 lbs leg of beef
100 gallons of water
6-1/4 lbs drippings
100 onions and other vegetables
25 lbs each of flour (seconds) and pearl barley
1-1/2 lbs brown sugar
9 lbs salt

So, lets see. If you divide the ingredients by 50 to put things in a more graspable framework, you'll quickly say, "where's the BEEF?"

4 oz. or 1/2 cup Beef
8 quarts water
2 oz. or 1/4 cup drippings
2 onions
8 oz. or 1 cup flour 8 oz. or 1 cup barley
1/2 oz. or 1 tsp. brown sugar
3 oz or 1/3 cup salt

I have tried this soup recipe two ways: The first interpreted the soup as a beef and barley soup, with nicely browned sliced onions in the thickened broth. I added a diced carrot, an enhancement, but rather modest. Bay leaf and pepper would have helped, but I refrained. The soup was a bit thin in flavor, but not what I would call "poor" at all. Browning the onions and meat with the sugar actually did bring out more flavor than I thought possible. A second version was faithful to the ingredients list, but the presentation was a bit different. Instead of thickening the soup with a flour-drippings roux, I used the flour, some drippings. a bit of the broth and an egg to make little flour dumplings. The soup was a broth made from the browned onions and meat, thickened slightly by the barley, with lots of small dumplings in each serving. Both versions were better than Campbells!