Say meatball in America and many people instantly think of the extensive variety of Italian ones. But in truth, just about every culture has its own kind. Middle Easterners have koftas, the French have bouletes, the Chinese have fish balls (if you’ve ever had authentic dim sum, you’ve seen these come out on carts.). There are Swedish meatballs (hello, Ikea!), Greek keftedes and even the Indonesians are in on the ground meat action with their baksos. Then, of course, there is the Latin albóndiga—a word that, when mentioned to just about any Hispanic, almost instantly draws out smiles, thoughts of warm blankets on cool nights and memories of abuelas.
These tender little savory spheres of deliciousness are a comfort food classic. But even among Latinos, there’s a world of variation. In Mexico, albóndigas are served in a brothy soup with vegetables called sopa de albóndiga, like the one made by the ladies behind the blog muybuenocookbook.com. In Spain, where they are often served at bars and tavernas as tapas, they’re made in a rich tomato sauce. (Like these at tapastips.com) In the Hispanic Caribbean—Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic—they’re made with a blend of meat and pork, stewed in a sofrito-laced sauce and (naturally) served over rice.
The actual origin of the albóndiga dates so far back that there is no real agreement on who made the first meatball. But the word itself is part of the litany of Spanish words derived from Arabic, in this case from the word al-bunduq, which means “the ball.” It is pretty likely, therefore, that the Hispanic world was introduced to the albondiga during the Muslim rule in Spain, from the year 711 to 1492.
Today’s recipe is a healthy, but no less flavorful, re-interpretation of the albóndiga. It’s not a classic Latin recipe necessarily, but one that folds in the best of how we and others make meatballs. First, rather than meat and pork, this albóndiga is made with lean ground turkey. Then, in a nod to Mexican tradition, finely-chopped zucchini is folded in for texture, flavor and a bump in nutritional value. It’s the Italians who brilliantly added parmesan cheese to their meatballs to make them extra moist and tasty; that idea is borrowed here with Manchego cheese grated into the mix. Usually coated in a little flour and pan-fried, these are oven roasted instead, a way to cut fat. And last, the sauce is sofrito-based and tomato-y. You can opt to make it…or not. The albóndigas are good on their own as an appetizer or snack, or as an addition to any soup. You can also serve them over brown rice.
Turkey albóndigas (Latin style turkey meatballs)
For the albóndigas
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
1 lb lean ground turkey (check label to see that fat content is no more than 7%)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup freshly grated Manchego cheese
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 of a medium sized zucchini, finely chopped
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/8 tsp ground cumin
Salt and pepper
2 T olive oil
For the sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1 cubanelle pepper (or green bell pepper, if not available), finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1/3 cup ketchup
1 tsp sugar
1/3 cup red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped, plus more for garnish
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Make the albóndigas. In a small bowl, soak the bread crumbs in the milk until the bread soaks in all the liquid and the mixture becomes pasty. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl combine the ground turkey, egg, cheese, parsley, garlic, onion, zucchini, oregano, cumin and salt and pepper to taste, and the breadcrumb-milk mixture. Using your hands, gently fold the ingredients into the turkey. Mix just so that the ingredients are distributed and well incorporated. Be careful not to over mix, which will cause the albóndigas to be dry and hard.
4. Using a measuring tablespoon, scoop out meat mixture and roll in to approximately 2-inch meatballs with your hands. You should be able to make 24 to 26 meatballs. As you make them, place the balls on a baking sheet that has been greased with the olive oil.
5. Bake the meatballs for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
6. Now, make the sauce. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a caldero over medium heat. Add the onion, pepper and garlic and cook until they are softened and lightly browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the paprika and stir for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the ketchup, sugar and wine. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cover the caldero and allow to cook for about 20 minutes.
7. Spoon out about a cup of the sauce and puree it in a blender or small food processor. Return the pureed sauce to the caldero and stir to incorporate. If the sauce is too thick, thin it out with a little water. Taste the sauce for seasoning, and add salt and pepper if needed.
8. Add the the albóndigas and chopped parsley to the sauce and gently stir, careful not to break the meatballs. Simmer for about 10 more minutes, until the albóndigas are heated through. Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Serve as appetizers or as a main course over brown rice, garnished with a little more chopped parsley. Serves 4 to 6.