Why It Works
- The chicken does triple-duty in this recipe: flavoring the broth, adding texture to the meatballs, and garnishing the soup with pieces of meat.
- Nixtamalized corn flour binds the meatballs while adding flavor.
- Sour orange juice (or a mixture of orange and lime juices) and fresh herbs add vibrant notes to the finished soup.
I grew up eating a lot of soup. But at home, main dishes and sides were presented at the same time, and you simply spooned everything onto your plate with no attention paid to edges of food touching, unless you were an oddball. When I moved to Mexico City, I was exposed to multi-course dining at home. It wasn't necessarily fancy (though I did have a friend who had peacocks and rottweilers coexisting on her expansive manicured lawn), just a different way of serving. My Mexican friends had food brought out in stages, and their soup always came first. There was consommé, consommé with fine broken noodles, and an endless array of Crayola-colored vegetable soups, laced with cream and garnished with delicate herbs. I remember there always being chill in the weather by the time school let out, and it was a comfort to sit before a steamy, brothy, velvety pool.
Why we eat soup in Nicaragua, however, where it is always either hot-and-dry or hot-and-wet, defies any explanation. Masochists, I say, because soups abound and are served year-round: Tripe! Chicken and vegetable! Cheese! She-crab! Oxtail! ¡Pero, por Dios! Having soup at my grandmother's house was extra-torturous: Lunch was served well after the cathedral bells had proclaimed noon, by which time guests were starving and languishing under the oppressive heat, swaying helplessly to-and-fro on rocking chairs.
This tradition of soup in a too-warm climate is bizarre, but now that I've packed away my summer clothes and sleep with the windows wide open, I'm grateful for the recipes. Sopa de albóndigas de pollo—chicken-meatball soup—is one of my favorites. I've never subscribed to American chicken noodle soup because I prefer our more assertive version, punctuated with pungent culantro, spearmint, and chunks of hearty root vegetables like yucca and taro.
Sopa de albóndigas is yet another example of chicken soup gone bold and buxom. A whole chicken is slowly simmered with onion, green bell pepper, garlic, culantro, and mint to build a rich and vibrant broth. The chicken is shredded and stirred into corn masa flavored with sautéed aromatics and rust-colored achiote, then shaped into balls that are simmered in broth. Try it next time you're looking for a little something more than slippery noodles in your soup.
This recipe was re-tested and lightly edited and updated in 2022 to fix a hydration issue with the dumplings.
For the Chicken Soup:
One 4-pound (1.8kg) chicken, cut into 8 pieces (backbone reserved)
1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces; 227g), peeled and quartered
1 medium green bell pepper (7 ounces; 198g), stemmed, seeded, and quartered
5 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 sour orange, split in half (see notes)
1/2 cup packed culantro (3/4 ounce; 21g; see notes)
1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves
3 quarts (3L) cold water
1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or same weight
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
For the Chicken Meatballs:
1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces; 227g), coarsely chopped (about 1 3/4 cups)
1/2 stemmed and seeded medium green bell pepper, coarsely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoons achiote paste or powdered annatto
3 tablespoons (45g) unsalted butter
2 cups corn masa mix (8 ounces; 227g), such as Maseca
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by weight
1/2 cup culantro (3/4 ounce; 21g), finely chopped (see notes)
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons (30ml) sour orange juice (see notes)
Fresh herbs, such as torn culantro, cilantro, and/or mint, for ganish
For the Chicken Soup: Place chicken pieces and backbone in large Dutch oven or large soup pot. Add onion, pepper, garlic, sour orange, culantro, and mint. Cover with water; stir in salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, skimming surface occasionally, until chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer chicken pieces to large plate. When cool enough to handle, use paper towels to remove chicken skin; discard. Shred chicken finely. Strain broth into a large bowl. Discard solids and return broth to Dutch oven.
For the Chicken Meatballs: In the bowl of a food processor, pulse onion, bell pepper, and garlic cloves until mixture is a fine paste, 15 to 20 one-second pulses. In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion mixture and annatto and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated and mixture has cooked down into a thick paste, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.
Add corn masa mix, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 1/2 cups (355ml) strained broth, culantro, mint, sour orange juice, and half the shredded chicken. Stir until thoroughly combined. To test seasoning, form a single 1/2-inch ball of dough. Bring broth to simmer over medium-low heat. Cook dumpling until it floats to surface, 4 to 5 minutes. Taste and add additional salt to masa mixture if needed.
Using lightly oiled hands, shape dough into 1 1/2–inch balls (you should have about 30). Working in 2 batches, add shaped meatballs to simmering broth. Cook until meatballs float to surface, about 8 minutes. Transfer cooked meatballs to a plate, then repeat with remaining meatballs, setting all cooked meatballs on plate as they are ready. Add remaining shredded chicken to broth to heat through, about 1 minute. If serving immediately, divide meatballs between bowls (about 4 meatballs per bowl) and ladle broth over. Serve, garnished with herbs.
Dutch oven or large soup pot, strainer, slotted spoon, paper towels, food processor
- If you can't find sour oranges, substitute with 2 tablespoons orange juice and 1 tablespoon lime juice when making the broth. For the meatball portion, substitute sour orange juice with 1 tablespoon orange juice and 2 teaspoons lime juice.
- Culantro is an herb commonly used in Latin America and the Caribbean—it is sometimes referred to as serrated coriander and is available in some Latin American markets. Its flavor is similar to cilantro, but much more pungent. If you can't find it, substitute with cilantro leaves and tender stems.
Make Ahead and Storage
If preparing ahead or storing leftovers, combine meatballs and broth into one container to prevent meatballs from drying out; cover and refrigerate up to 1 day.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 21g||27%|
|Saturated Fat 7g||36%|
|Total Carbohydrate 27g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||10%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 17mg||85%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|