I have been humbled, time and again, by how one never stops learning from other cooks in the kitchen. That has especially been the case with my cooking team at the Mexican Cultural Institute. We are all from different parts of Mexico, with our peculiar twists and spins, influences and very strong opinions, which we love to scream out loud when trying to make what we serve at each event be the best it can possibly be.Though we get a bit stressed when cooking for kitchen outsiders, we really let loose when making lunch for ourselves. We take turns and last week Julio, a former Mexican taquería cook, made his albóndigas. I had been dying to try them since not only he, but his aunt Maricruz, had been raving about them for over two years. “De veras, de veritas Pati” (Maricruz said, which means really, REALLY) “he makes the most delicious albóndigas of them all.”
There are multiple versions of just about any dish in the world. I am always amazed each time I test and play around with a single dish, at the many directions it can be driven to. That said, we have a family albóndigas version at home, which my boys eat happily at least a couple times a month.
As I watched Julio prepare his albóndigas, I asked him about things I was biased against for the dish, like the use of rice and mint. Well… humbled again I was! As it is said, the devil is in the details, it’s a matter of how these ingredients are used. Each thing that makes these albóndigas work so well, does so for a reason. I liked them so, that we will be making Julio’s meatballs at home now too. My boys noticed the difference in such a good way: “there is something different Mami” they were telling each other, as they cleaned their plates up. Here is a step by step guide on how to make this easy and perfect dish for the Fall:
(Ripe Roma tomatoes, a couple garlic cloves and a thick slice of white onion to prepare the base for tomato broth.
First of all, the tomato broth where the albóndigas are cooked in uses not just a couple of tomatoes, but a couple pounds. Though in Mexican cooking we usually use Roma (called Guaje) tomatoes for sauces and salsas rather than Round tomatoes, I would recommend using the freshest and ripest you can find, or let them mature outside the refrigerator for a couple days. As the Fall sets in, you can substitute the fresh tomatoes with a brand you like of simple tomato puree.
(Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce give the broth a smoky, sweet and rich depth
Once the tomatoes are simmered in water for about 10 minutes, they are placed in the blender with a couple garlic cloves, a thick slice of raw onion and a nice healthy dose of Chipotle chiles in Adobo Sauce.
If you can take more heat, drop in a whole Chipotle chile in adobo as well. But remember, you can always add more heat, but it is much more challenging to tone it down once it’s in the mix. So you may want to start with a tablespoon of sauce, and as the broth cooks on, taste to see if you can take a bit more heat. If you are a Chipotle addict, like me, no need to take precautions.After this tomato broth is cooked and seasoned, you can add some chicken broth.
(The mint and garlic play subtly with the tomato and the Chipotle adding both fragrance and welcomed layers of flavor.
Up to this point, all is familiar to me. Julio’s spin though, mashes a couple garlic cloves with 5 or 6 fresh mint leaves in a molcajete and tejolote
, the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle. You can use the former or the latter, and if you don’t have either, just mince them finely with a knife. The way the mint plays with the tomato and the chipotle in the dish is subtle, yet quite spectacular.
(Quickly mashed garlic and fresh mint leaves.
It takes no more than 10 seconds to mash it all up. And if you have a molcajete or want to get one, this is a great way to start seasoning it or to season it further.
(My 3 year old sous chef, or as my late grandfather would say, my bandido
, mashing away.
Since mashing is an activity loved by just about everyone around here, we ended up adding a bit more of this seasoning when we made the dish at home.
(Ground turkey breast, white rice cooked al dente, mashed mint and garlic, eggs, kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper)
Julio used ground turkey breast, which is what we had at hand. I love to use turkey to make albóndigas, as it makes them lighter and leaner while still very flavorful. You can also use ground chicken, beef, or your preferred combination of meats: veal, beef and pork. This latter one, is my mother’s take. It is pretty tasty too. Julio typically makes them with a mix of beef and pork, but he was unexpectedly more than happy with the results from the turkey.The last of Julio’s spins, that I was skeptic about, was the addition of rice to bind the meat and give the albóndigas nice texture. Turns out, it depends on how you use the rice. Other versions I had tried before with rice, add it completely raw. Julio, quickly cooks the rice in water for 6 to 8 minutes until it is barely cooked through or al dente. So when you add it to the mixture, it finishes cooking as the meatballs cook in the broth and it bonds beautifully together making them fluffy, soft and with such a bite-able consistency.
(A plate, ready for you to jump into, with ripe Mexican avocados… tasty with corn tortillas and cooked beans too.
)So finally, here goes the recipe for you to print out! My guess is that you will also be pleasantly surprised by what mint and garlic do to the already smashing combination of tomato and chipotle. If you try them, let me know…
Julio’s Albóndigas with Chipotle and Mint
1/3 cup long or extra long grain white rice
2 cups water
2 garlic cloves
5 to 8 mint leaves
1 1/2 pounds ground turkey, chicken breast or a combination of beef, veal and pork
1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground, or more to taste
2 pounds ripe tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons white onion, roughly chopped (or a slice to your liking)
1 to 2 tablespoons Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, to taste
1 Chipotle chile in adobo, seeded, optional
2 tablespoons safflower, corn or vegetable oil
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
In a small sauce pan place the rice and cover with 2 cups hot water. Simmer over medium high heat for 6 to 8 minutes, until rice is cooked al dente but not mushy. Drain and let cool.
In a molcajete, mash the mint leaves and 2 garlic cloves with the tejolote until pureed. Alternatively, you can use a mortar and pestle or you can simply mince them together.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground meat of your choice, the raw eggs, the cooled and drained rice, the mashed or minced garlic cloves with the mint, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper. Mix thoroughly, with your hands or spatula.
In a pot, place the tomatoes and cover with water. Simmer over medium high heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until cooked through and mushy. Add the cooked tomatoes along with 1/4 cup of their cooking liquid, 2 garlic cloves, white onion, the sauce from the chipotles in adobo and if desired the chile chipotle in adobo in the blender and puree until smooth.
Pour 2 tablespoons of oil to a large deep pot and place over medium high heat. Once oil is hot, incorporate the pureed tomato mix. Let it simmer anywhere from 6 to 8 minutes, or until it has changed its color to a deeper red, thickened in consistency and lost its raw flavor. Add chicken broth and 1/2 teaspoon salt and reduce heat to medium low.
Along the side of the pot with the simmering tomato broth, place a small mixing bowl with about a cup of water as well as the mixing bowl with the albóndiga mix. Start to make the albondigas, one by one, anywhere from 1 to 2" in width and place them gently in the simmering liquid. Wet your hands in the water before you start and after you make a couple of albóndigas so they are easier to shape and the the mix doesn't stick to your hands.
Once you have shaped all the albóndigas, cover the pot and let them simmer over medium low heat for 20 minutes. If you want the tomato broth to thicken a bit more, uncover the pot and let it simmer for 5 to 8 more minutes.
Serve hot with a side of freshly sliced Mexican avocado, some warm corn tortillas and if desired, frijoles de olla, or cooked beans.
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