Albóndigas: a Mexican version of Sephardic meatballs


I love meatballs. I think I will repeat it. I love Meatballs.

Every food culture has its meatball. This is my Mexican version of Sephardic meatballs, called albóndigas in Spanish. When I traveled to Mexico, I discovered the flavor of serrano peppers and tomato sauce that I combined for this recipe. Serrano peppers have a smoky flavor that adds a lot of depth to the sauce when mixed with onion, garlic, oregano and mint. Mint creates a cool contrast with the spice of chili.

While I wouldn’t call this recipe spicy, it does have a little kick to it. I believe cooks should make their own recipe, and you can add or remove spices just like you can use more or less salt. It should be to your liking.

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I use real bread instead of breadcrumbs for this recipe, which in addition to boiling the meatballs in tomato sauce, creates a superior, soft and delicious meatball.

These meatballs are best served over steamed white rice. You can make plain rice or cook the rice with a cup of sautéed onions to add a little more flavor to the dish.

I tend to save this recipe for the weekend or Shabbat as it has a few more steps than the dishes I usually cook after work.

Albóndigas: Meatballs in tomato chili sauce
Makes about 24 large meatballs and serves six to eight people

For the sauce:

4 garlic cloves, skin intact
5 serrano peppers, or your favorite pepper
¼ cup neutral vegetable oil, such as avocado oil
1 cup of water
1 teaspoon of sea salt
A very large can of tomatoes, about 6 pounds. I prefer the Cento brand of whole peeled tomatoes, but you can use any equivalent of smaller cans. You can also use canned diced tomatoes as they will be mixed into a sauce.

For the meatball mixture:
2 pounds of ground beef
1 cup cubed white marbles, crust removed (about 4-5 pieces)
cup of water
2 teaspoons of sea salt
3 garlic cloves, chopped
Half a small onion, finely chopped (about ⅓ cup)
5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dried mint or 1 tbsp of finely chopped fresh mint
2 large eggs

To prepare the meatballs:
Any type of white bread can be used for this recipe. I had semolina bread, so I used it instead of white sandwich bread. It may be old but not stale or dry.

Cut the crusts before cutting them into cubes. It will measure about 1 cup if you put it in a measuring cup and press down quickly. The bread will bounce back when you take the pressure off your hand, and that’s fine.

Place the bread in a large mixing bowl. Stir in ¼ cup of water and let the bread soak for about 10 minutes.

Chop the onion and tomatoes. To seed the tomatoes, simply cut them in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and dice the remaining flesh.

Using the back of a fork, mash the bread and water mixture into a paste. Add the onion, tomato salt and spices to the bowl and mix. I usually let stand another 10 minutes while I make the sauce, allowing the flavor to really seep into the breadcrumb mixture.

Hand mix 2 pounds of ground beef. Do not over mix as this will create tough, dense meatballs.

Make a well in the meat mixture and add the eggs. Gently mix the egg into the meat mixture until just combined. The mixture will be very moist compared to how you usually prepare meatballs or meatloaf. That’s okay – it’s part of the secret to how they prepare so perfectly. Form about 24 meatballs, each about the size of a golf ball. I put them on a baking sheet while I prepare them. You can also do this a few hours in advance and refrigerate until it’s time to add them to the sauce.

Albondigas (Photo by Jessica Grann)

To prepare the sauce:
Cover a heavy-bottomed pan with foil – I often just tear off a piece of foil, fold it into a square, and gently press it down on my pan. This prevents the flavor of the peppers and garlic from seeping into your pan.

Place the 5 whole chilies with the stems and unpeeled garlic cloves on the foil and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning the chilies and garlic several times until the skin is peeled. darkens and blisters. You should feel the peppers soften as they darken.

Turn off the heat and, using tongs, place the garlic and peppers in a small paper lunch bag, fold the top and set aside. (You may want to start chopping and preparing the meatball mixture while the garlic and chilies are cooking.)
After the garlic and peppers have cooled for about 10 minutes, remove them from the paper bag and place them on a cutting board.

Using a sharp knife, cut and peel the skin of the garlic and slice the stems of the peppers. Cut the peppers in half and deveine 2 so that a few seeds mix with the sauce for a gentle heat. If you are afraid of spices, start the sauce with only deveined peppers. You can set the seeds aside to add them later if you need to. If you know you like very spicy foods, you don’t need to deveine the peppers – just put them whole (without stems) into the mixture.

Using a blender or food processor, blend about 3 batches of canned tomatoes, peppers and garlic until well combined. You will see small charred pieces of the skins, which is normal.

Add ¼ cup of oil to a heavy-bottomed saucepan such as a casserole or pot and bring to a boil over medium heat.
Add the tomato sauce mixture and sauté in the oil for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add water and salt and bring to a gentle boil.

Gently drop the meatballs one at a time, using a wooden spoon to help find a place to drop them. Meatballs must be completely submerged in the sauce to cook properly. If for some reason the sauce does not cover them, add a little water until they are covered.

After adding all the meatballs, you may need to cook them for a few more minutes over medium heat until the sauce is bubbly. At this point, lower the heat and cover the meatballs.

Cook 25 minutes, uncovering once and stirring gently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.

After 25 minutes, remove the cover and continue simmering for 15 to 20 minutes uncovered, allowing the sauce to thicken, creating more flavor and a better consistency.

To prepare the rice:
You can make plain rice in the traditional way. I usually steam rice, but for this dish I sauté 1 cup finely chopped onion in 2 tablespoons avocado or neutral vegetable oil over medium heat for 5 minutes before adding 1 ½ cup of white rice.

Stir the rice into the oil and onion mixture and simmer an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, before adding 3 cups of boiling water. I have found that adding a few sprigs of parsley or cilantro at this point really adds to the overall flavor.

Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove the lid, stir and continue cooking, uncovered, over low heat for another 5 minutes.

If you added parsley or cilantro sprigs, remove the stems before serving.

Pour the meatballs and sauce over the rice and serve. Enjoy! PJC

Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.

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