Mexico has its own version of meatballs, called Albóndigas. Often made with a mixture of pork and beef and served in a tomato broth, this is down-home Mexican cooking. My version contains no pork, but rather range-fed beef. The usual accompaniments are steaming corn tortillas, chopped onion, cilantro and avocado. Russ, my astute taster, looked for a dish of rice when we sat down for dinner. A bed of rice would be fine with this, and I’ll make some for him when we have left-overs tomorrow, but here in Mexico tortillas supply the carbs for albóndigas.
If you aren’t used to taking the time to form meatballs — and I’ll admit I don’t do this too often — put on some music to help pass the time while you form those little balls. Our FM station from Guadalajara, 91.9, plays hours of jazz and classical music without commercials. On Saturday afternoon, they feature Cuban son, a style of music with Cuban and African influence, popularized by The Buena Vista Social Club. I had those albóndigas rolled in no time while my feet kept time to the Afro-Caribbean beat.
My pride and joy, homemade beef stock, is in this dish. Homemade stock can not be had for love or money — you have to make it yourself. If you love to cook, if you love great food, do yourself a favor and learn to make this simple liquid gold.
Another essential ingredient, and one my kitchen is never without, is chipotle en adobo, canned, smoke-dried jalapeños. Muy picante, they are wonderful added to any soup, but be sure to mince very finely.
This recipe is adapted from The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. A transplanted Brit, Mrs. Kennedy was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican government for her writings on regional Mexican cuisine. Without her books, our tables would be less interesting and lack a certain alegría de vida.
Abóndigas in Tomato and Chipotle Broth
- 3/4 lbs. (680 grams) ground range-fed beef
- 2 eggs
- 2 small (6 oz./170 grams) finely chopped calabacitas or zucchini
- 1/2 teaspoon each Mexican oregano and mint, or 4 fresh leaves Mexican oregano and mint, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon comino (cumin) seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 1 lb. (1/2 kilo) fresh tomatoes (cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes and then peeled) or 1 3/4 cups (420 ml.) canned tomatoes
- 2 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 chipotle chiles, finely minced
- 3-4 cups light beef broth, preferably homemade
- salt to taste
- chopped cilantro, diced onion and cubed avocado for garnish
- warm corn tortillas
- With your hands, blend meat with next seven ingredients. Form into 1 1/2″ (3.5-4 cm.) balls.
- Zizz tomatoes and chipotle chile in a blender, but don’t puree. Tiny pieces are interesting.
- Heat oil in skillet over medium-low flame, and cook onion for 4 minutes until translucent.
- Add garlic and cook 1 minute more.
- Add tomato and broth and bring to a simmer. Gently add meatballs and simmer covered for 1 hour. Adjust salt.
- Serve in bowls with a generous serving of broth, garnishing with cilantro, onion and avocado, and serve tortillas on the side.
Etymology: Albóndiga is from the Arabic word, “al-bunduq”, meaning small hazelnut, i.e., a small round object. Albóndigas were brought to Spain by the Moors during Muslim rule. The dish continued to travel, arriving in Mexico with the Spaniards.
Like so many dishes blending onion, garlic and tomatoes, albóndigas are better the next day. They freeze well.
Traditional Mexican cooks don’t use canned tomatoes, and all the recipes for albóndigas call for fresh tomatoes, but it has become impossible to find really ripe tomatoes in Mexican stores. They are as unripe and pallid as tomatoes north of the border. Tomatoes in Mexico are now farmed on a large scale, with shipping and storage being a priority, not taste. If you can’t find red, ripe tomatoes, canned tomatoes offer reliable flavor.
Mexican oregano (Lippia berlandieri) and Mediterranean oregano (Origanum vulgare) are two different herbs. The former is the one commonly used in Mexican cuisine, while the latter is called for in Italian and Greek recipes.
Don’t forget to disinfect your veggies, especially cilantro, a close-to-the-ground plant, and therefore exposed to more contaminants.