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:

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