Albondigas en Caldo (Grandma Style)

When  John and I moved to Tucson, Arizona for the second time, we had a houseful of little kids, and a single income. I spent a lot of time there perfecting recipes that would be budget- and baby-friendly. Living in a new region was inspiring. I was browsing the very small book section at the local grocery store and found an interesting cookbook. And while I rarely cook directly from recipes, I lovelovelove owning and reading and absorbing cookbooks of any kind. This was an unassuming paperback, Mexican Family Cooking, by Aida Gabilondo. So I added it to my groceries and headed to check out. The seemingly stern woman who checked me out looked over the book, looked at me and said in faintly accented English, "You can't learn Mexican cooking from a book. You need an abuela." I sheepishly said "Well, I wish I had a Mexican grandmother, so I guess this will have to do . . ." The twinkle in her eye was a little brighter than her all-but-non-existent smile.
My well-worn copy of  Mexican Family Cooking
As time went on, this woman and I forged a very fun relationship, always over something I was buying, something I was making, and if she saw an ingredient she knew about, she would give me tips and guidance, like how to roast a green chile, and package it for the freezer, or how to make a green salsa or her version of chilequiles. When she learned I was taking Spanish, she insisted "From now on, I will never speak to you in English, only Spanish."  She started every basic converstaion from then on in Spanish, and was very encouraging with my basic skills. She did talk to me in English, but only after a few sentences in Spanish.

And as it turns out, I did learn  a few things from a Mexican grandma--this kind woman, and also the author of the small cookbook I purchased that day. Through a series of odd incidents, I came to find out that the author is the grandmother of TV chef Aaron Sanchez. She probabaly wrote this when he was a little boy.

One of my favorite recipes from this cookbook is the soup called Albondigas en Caldo, a brothy soup with meatballs, flavored with green chiles, scallions, garlic and fresh cilantro. It is a common soup in Tucson restaurants. I have had it many ways, often with diced carrots. peas or even potatoes--and sometimes with rice in the meatballs. This one has corn masa paste added to the meatballs, so there is also a nice infusion of corn flavor.
Albondigas en Caldo
I will offer the original recipe here and make notes where I have usually deviated. For example, because of dietary choices some of my family makes, I make the meatballs with ground chicken or turkey, and substitute the lard with olive oil.

Albondigas en Caldo

2 lbs. of ground round or other lean ground beef (I have made this with ground chicken, and also a mix of turkey and pork)
1 egg
1/2 cup dehydrated masa flour (masa harina) mixed with 4 Tbl. water to make a soft dough
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 Tbl. vinegar

2 Tbl. lard (I use a stronger flavored olive oil, but if your family doesn't avoid pork, the lard imparts a great flavor)
2 Tbl. flour (I replace this with masa, to add to the corn taste in the broth)
2 to 3 qts of well seasoned chicken broth (I usually use my own, but for this without celery in it, the flavor is not wanted in this case. Homemade broth allows me to leave a few shreds of chicken meat in the broth, not a lot, just a few shreds here and there)
2 green onions cut into 1/2 inch lengths (I use 4 and cut them a little smaller)
1 4-oz. can of chopped green chiles (undrained)
1 cup of ripe, chopped, unpeeled tomatoes (I use romas and include the pulp and seeds)
1/4 cup tomato sauce (I rarely include this, not because it's not good. I always forget it when I am shopping)
4 garlic cloves, mashed or minced fine
1/4 c. fresh mint leaves (I rarely include these, but it is really good with them included)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, including some stems (I usually use about twice that much)

Mix in the masa and seasonings, but do not handle too much

You will get about 30 meatballs

In a medium sized bowl, mix the ground meat, the egg and the soft masa dough, salt, pepper and vinegar and mix well, creating a soft, well-mixed dough. Make the meatballs about the size of ping pong balls and place on a cookie sheet. They are soft, so do not stack up. Have the chicken broth ready.
These vegetables all go in at once
In the bottom of a large kettle, melt the lard (I use olive oil, any fat will work), add 2 Tbl. of masa and brown lightly, making a roux. Add the chicken broth, stirring to incorporate the roux. Add the green onions, garlic, green chiles, tomatoes and cilantro. If adding mint, add it during this step. Correct salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer.

Simmering softens the vegetables while the meatballs cook
While broth is simmering, carefully drop meatballs into the broth, and cover pan, allowing meatballs to poach. Cover pan and simmer for about 30 minutes. The meatballs will float to the top when done.

If you refrigerate this soup overnight, it improves its flavors, and you can skim any unwanted fat off the top before reheating. It also freezes really well, but we rarely have leftovers. I am serving this tonight with my Sonoran Cheese Crisps, found on this blog in an earlier post.