One afternoon last week my doorbell rang, which was a surprise, because I wasn’t expecting anyone. I opened the door and there stood a beautiful young woman with a toddler clinging to her knee, holding a huge platter piled with fresh vegetables. “Hi,” she said, “I’m your next door neighbor and I have a garden that is making more stuff than I can possibly use. So I am going door to door in the neighborhood and trying to get rid of it. Do you want some?”
Since we hadn’t met, she had no idea her new neighbor (me) was a hardcore foodie and a platter of just-picked veggies was like finding the gold at the end of the rainbow. Especially since about half of the platter was piled high with tomatillos. So I invited her in, of course. In the end I had all of her tomatillos, plus a few jalapenos and serranos, and a tour of her garden, which was beautiful and growing like crazy. She said she didn’t know what to do with all the tomatillos except make salsa, so I gave her the recipe for this Tomatillo Albondigas Soup and one for a Jicama, Mango and Fresh Tomatillo Salad. A sweet new neighbor and a bunch of tomatillos. Sometimes life just gives you lemonade, you know.
When I was doing my cooking internship at Campanile for culinary school, I worked every Saturday for nine months doing prep work in the kitchen from about 8AM until 3PM. Then the prep cooks would go home, and the line cooks would come in and I would do whatever they asked to help them prep their stations. From 6 to 8PM I would watch Chef Mark Peel work the grill and observe the line cooks at work, running whatever little errands they asked of me.
My boss during the day was the head prep cook, Eloy. He had the kitchen manager’s to-do list hanging over his cutting board station, and crossed off and assigned the various tasks to be accomplished. The four or five other prep cooks had their cutting boards down the counter to Eloy’s left and I had my cutting board on his right, where he could show me how he wanted everything done in minute detail and keep an eagle eye on me. Since I had no restaurant cooking experience and rudimentary knife skills, I was pretty much the comic relief for the whole prep crew. Eloy didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so communication was by sign language, pointing, elbowing my arm, grunting, laughing, and when necessary having someone act as translator. We chuckled a lot.
Eloy was about forty, not much taller than my five feet, but stocky and barrel-chested, with forearms like Popeye. I have never seen anyone with such amazing knife skills as this man and I am still trying to emulate him. With those strong wrists and hands he made quick work of every task. Perfectly.
One morning, as I was working away, Eloy gave me an elbow in the arm and pointed down at his cutting board. There sat a big clove of peeled garlic. At this point all of the other prep cooks were jostling into position so they could see what he was going to do. They all had big grins on their faces. Eloy looked at me, raised an eyebrow and looked down at the garlic. He picked up his chef’s knife and with just the up and down movement of his hand from the wrist, reduced that garlic clove into about 30 paper thin slices in 3 seconds. The knife was a blur. This would have been an amazing feat in and of itself, except that he was looking over his shoulder in the opposite direction from the cutting board.
Next, Eloy picked up another garlic clove and put it on my cutting board. He gave a little lift of his chin and pointed at me and the garlic. Everybody was really grinning by now. So I got my chef’s knife and slowly sliced it into about 10 slices. This time Eloy had the big grin on his face as he patted me on the back, like, nice try kid. So we all went back to work with little smiles on our faces.
On my last day at Campanile, all the prep cooks had gone home and I was cleaning up my cutting board station. When I turned around, the clean stainless steel counter behind me held nothing but a bowl of soup. None of the line cooks had arrived yet, so I was alone with that bowl. I had no idea whose it was or what kind of soup it was, but it looked really interesting. I got a spoon and looking around to see if anyone could see me, surreptitiously ate a spoonful. Oh my gosh, it was one of the most amazing and delicious things I had ever tasted. I had never tasted a tomatillo in my life and had no idea that was what I had eaten. But there was no one around to ask. At that point it didn’t occur to me that Eloy had left me a parting gift. I had no way to get the recipe, so I just filed away the delicious memory.
A couple of years later, I was at a book store and was paging through the new cookbook The Food of Campanile. There on page 80 was the recipe “Eloy Mondez’s Albondigas Soup”. I almost started jumping up and down! This was the recipe for the soup he’d made! Tomatillos. So that was what that mysterious ingredient was. The notes said Eloy made this soup for the staff meal and it was so popular they ended up putting it on the menu when they opened for lunch. I immediately bought that book and have been happily making this soup for the past 14 years. I hope you make this soup, too and enjoy it as much as I have. Thank you, Eloy!
Tomatillo Albondigas Soup
Serves up to 10
2 pounds fresh tomatillos, husks removed and washed, cut in half
1 medium onion (8 ounces), peeled and coarsely chopped
7 large garlic cloves, peeled, cut in half
2 small jalapeno peppers, split and seeded
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
5 1/2 cups chicken stock (or three 14oz cans low sodium chicken broth + ½ cup water)
15 sprigs fresh cilantro, tough stems discarded
1 pound ground beef chuck (20% fat)
1 pound ground pork
1 medium onion (8 ounces), peeled, finely chopped (I used my mini processor)
½ cup cooked white rice
1 large egg
2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Juice of 4 limes (1/2 cup)
Leaves from 10 sprigs fresh cilantro, coarse chopped
1. To prepare the soup: In a large stockpot or dutch oven, over medium-high heat, combine the tomatillos, onion, garlic, jalapeno peppers, cumin, salt, pepper and the chicken stock, and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce the heat and simmer, skimming off any foam that rises to the top, until the tomatillos are tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Using a colander, strain the vegetables from the broth, reserving both the vegetables and the broth. Puree the tomatillos, onion, garlic and jalapeno peppers in a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade, adding ½ cup of the reserved broth and about 15 sprigs of cilantro. (This can be done in two or three batches).
4. Return the pureed vegetables and the remaining soup broth to the stockpot and bring to a simmer.
5. To make the meatballs: While the soup broth is simmering, in a large mixing bowl, combine the ground meat with the minced onion, cooked rice, the raw egg, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, ground cumin and ground cloves, and mix gently but thoroughly.
6. Form the meat into 1-inch meatballs. Keep your hands lightly moistened with cold water to prevent the ground meat from sticking. The mixture should yield about 40 walnut-sized, 1-ounce meatballs. Place meatballs in the soup and continue to simmer, about 30 minutes longer. Skim off any foam that rises to the top. Add ½ cup or more water to replace what has evaporated and to adjust the salt level.
7. Place 4 meatballs in each large, warm soup bowl. Ladle about one cup of soup over the meatballs, and squeeze lime juice into each bowl. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve immediately.