Latin Cuisine: How to Make Colombian-Style Sopa de Albóndigas (Meatball Soup)

Latin Cuisine

Regional cuisine from Central and South America.

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Meatball soup is a Colombian specialty. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

"You can use whatever soup you like, but I like to use this brand, because it has that special flavor," says Gloria, as she drops another bouillon cube into a pot of water that's simmering with a big sprig of cilantro and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. As soon as the cube dissolves, she tastes the soup again, then starts dropping in the small, all-beef meatballs we'd been shaping for the last half hour, stirring them from time to time until they pop up on the surface and start floating. "That's how you know they're ready," she says.

As a trained cook and a man of science, I can't help but to think to myself, I'll be using that real chicken stock, thank you! or hmm... I personally would tell they're ready by sticking a thermometer into them, but I guess floating works okay too, but there's something to be said for the heavily imprinted methods of home cooks: There was no denying the finished soup, garnished with its fried potato topping, was as delicious as you could hope for.

My wife Adri is Colombian, and we've been coming to visit her family in Bogotá once or twice a year for more than five years. Like many things in Bogotá, for me, these trips are partly defined by the effects of the altitude. I run out of breath before my fingers get tired at the climbing gym (the steady Colombian diet of meat and starch may also have something to do with this). My hangovers are especially brutal (this may just be a side effect of aguardiente, the local firewater). And cooking becomes way more unpredictable.

Luckily, Adri's Aunt Gloria has been cooking in Bogotá for well over five decades. If there's anyone who knows how to make a tasty home cooked meal in a city where water boils at 197°F, she does. Luckily, she's also as generous as anyone I know with both her recipes and her time. I've made it my goal to cook at least a few meals with her every time I visit Colombia, partly as a way to log some family memories into a form that'll last forever, and partly as part of my master plan to write the Colombian-cookbook-for-Americans to end all Colombian-cookbooks-for-Americans. It's still a work in progress.

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I figured her sopa de albóndigas—meatball soup—would make a fitting addition to our Meatball Week lineup, as it's not like any meatball soup I've had before. In fact, according to her, it's not like any meatball soup she's had anywhere else either. This particular combination of beef with capers in broth served with fried potato sticks seems to live almost solely within the confines of her own family recipe. This is a shame, as it's terribly delicious.

When Gloria makes it, she starts with strips of extra-lean beef (Colombian beef tends to be very lean in general), processed to a paste in a food processor, then gently mixed by hand with eggs, breadcrumbs, a dash of hogao—that's a Colombian sauce of onions simmered with tomatoes—and capers. The finished meatballs, while great in flavor, have a texture that is far denser than your typical American meatball, and because of their low-fat nature, can be very easily overcooked.

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So when adapting it for my own kitchen, I decided to go with a slightly higher-fat blend, using standard ground chuck along with a bit of heavy cream. I also prefer to use fresh bread instead of breadcrumbs for the extra moisture it adds.

There is something quite therapeutic about kneading together your beef and fillings for the meatballs, and if you've got a nephew or aunt in the kitchen you want to spend some time with, there are worse ways to do it than mixing and shaping meatballs. However, if time is your concern, I found that the meatball mixture actually comes out just as well if you dump all the ingredients into a food processor and process them together until the paste is formed.

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Shaping the meatballs should be done with slightly damp hands (this helps prevent the tacky mixture from sticking to them). If you've got a properly-sized cookie scoop ( I used a 2 teaspoon scoop, letting it overflow to about double its capacity), that'll make short work of the project.

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For the broth, even if I was content with using bouillon, I wouldn't be able to find the brand that Gloria recommends, so I went with a pot of homemade chicken broth instead, flavoring it with a bunch of cilantro and a big dash of Worcestershire sauce (or salsa Perrins, as she calls it).

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One thing I quickly noticed: while the meatballs I made with the added cream and fresh bread were definitely juicier, they also end up clouding the stock as they cooked.

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To fix this, I fished the cooked meatballs out of the soup (with these lighter meatballs, "until they float" doesn't really work—they're still undercooked; to make sure of doneness, cut one in half and check), then strained the broth into a clean pot through a fine-mesh strainer and skimmed of the excess fat before returning the meatballs.

In Bogotá, soups are a way of life. "When I was growing up, we had soup for lunch every single day," Gloria explained, and lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Even in modern times, it's not unusual for office workers to head home to take their lunch, a meal which consists of fresh fruit followed by a hearty soup and finally a meat course with potatoes or rice accompanying it. On its own, this particular soup is a little austere—no fresh vegetables, nothing but meatballs and broth, really—but fried potatoes can help add some heft.

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Bogotá is in the Andes, the cradle of the potato, and there are varieties of potato there that most of us have never even heard of. Fortunately, for this application, plain russet potatoes (they call them white potatoes there) are the spud of choice. Gloria peels and slices hers on an ancient carbon steel mandoline while I cut thin matchsticks by hand.

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"You have to rinse the potatoes so they don't turn brown," she says, as she pours cold water over the matchsticks until it runs clear. The same technique applies to french fries or potato chips. The water washes away excess starches and sugars that were released when you slice them, ensuring that they cook up crisp, golden, and light instead of dark and bitter.

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Fried potatoes may seem like an odd topping for a soup. I think it might be an American thing. We like our fried food to stay crispy, so we keep it as dry as possible, resorting to last-second dipping sauces to flavor them. But in many other cultures, it's not uncommon to serve crisply-fried foods in broth.

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Japanese tempura served on top of udon, or fried tofu in dashi come to mind. I've had fried foods in moist Thai salads and Chinese stir-fries. There's something really comforting you get from a broth and oil-soaked bit of starch that retains just enough of its crispness to add some texture. Enough that I think shoestring potatoes should become a standard soup topping the world over.

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The way Gloria serves the soup, each diner gets five meatballs, plenty of broth, and a handful of fried potatoes. I had to endure some quizzical looks from her as I garnished my own bowl with some of the thin, bolted fresh cilantro leaves you find in Colombia (sorry, but they add more than just good looks!).

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The final version of the soup is one that pays proper homage to Gloria's family recipe, but is updated just enough to suit my own personal palate. Hopefully it'll do the trick for you as well.