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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sopa de Albondigas and My Not-So-Secret Secret Love--A Delicious Cuisine You May be Missing Out On


Sopa de Gallina con Albondigas--Hen/Chicken Soup with Meatballs
shredded chicken meatballs, chicken wings, malanga/yautia, plantain, cabbage, herbs

Miami's easy access to authentic Caribbean food as well as Caribbean ingredients in supermarkets have allowed me to try my hand at learning a number of new foods.  Nicaraguan food is one that it never crossed my mind to try.  I am a very adventurous cook and often try recipes from countries I’ve never been to and end up with dishes I’ve never had in my life and probably never will have outside of my own kitchen.

Here in Miami, second to Cuban food, Nicaraguan food is probably the next most prevalent.  Before coming to this city, I’d never heard the slightest mention of Nica food.  I will say that it has to be among the most severely underappreciated cuisines I know of.  It is very versatile, very flavorful, and full of lots of vitamins that are vital to our diets.  In fact, Nicaraguan food has very much become my culinary love, if not obsession.  I love it's tangy flavorfulness, the comforting feeling it gives you, and it's almost playful culinary ingenuity.  You may not have had Nicaraguan food before, but don't be afraid.  Step out and try something new!  

Nicaraguan food is very much reflective of its continental Caribbean location.  The cuisine of Nicaragua has been heavily influenced both by the African-descended population on the Atlantic coast and its indigenous roots.  Its cuisine is best known for its grilled meats, especially churrasco, here in Miami, as well as its delicious and hearty soups and stews.  Unlike Cuban food, Nicaraguan food always comes with veggies, even if it's only the very Nicaraguan ensalada (salad).  Nicaraguan ensalada is shredded cabbage, carrots, and sometimes chopped tomatoes and onions that is quick-pickled in lime juice, salt, sugar, and sometimes a little white vinegar.  It is an accompaniment to anything that is grilled, baked, or fried.  I absolutely love Nicaraguan soups and stews.  They come with tons of root vegetables and other starches, such as yuca (Eng - cassave, Fre - manioc, Kre- kasav), yautia (Eng - cocoyam, Span2 - malanga), and plantain (Span - platano, Fre - banane) as well as other veggies such as auyama/calabaza (buttercup squash), corn (still on the cob and chopped into three or so rounds), chayote squash (Span2 - tallota), carrots, and often tomato.  The seasoning used in Nicaraguan cuisine is grounded by a heavy use of fresh mint, onion, green pepper (chiltoma in Nicaraguan Span.), garlic, lime juice, bitter orange juice, as well as the use of other herbs such as parsley and cilantro.

One of my favorite Nicaraguan dishes is sopa de gallina con albóndigas (hen or chicken soup with meatballs).  If you've never had sopa de gallina, it is made with a whole chicken or hen cut into pieces, yuca, yautia, plantain, carrots, cabbage, corn on the cob, buttercup squash, chayote squash, mint, onions, garlic, bell pepper, tomato, bitter orange, and sometimes lime, cilantro, and parsley.  It is a delicious soup that has a light tangy-ness, a light herb-y flavor, and it gives you that nice, warm, comforting sensation that all Nicaraguan food does.  If you're like me, and you're uneasy about the idea of mint in your savory foods, don't worry; the seasoning blend in Nicaraguan food works very well with mint.  It is not overpowering at all.  It's not too different from the flavor you get from adding similar herbs to pho (Vietnamese beef soup).  The overall flavor, of course, is very different from pho.  Sopa de albondigas, as it is also known, is very hearty and has lots of vitamins that are vital to a balanced diet.

Below is my recipe for a wonderful sopa de gallina con albondigas.  I've combined elements from the following recipes and made the dish my own.

You will need your large stock pot for this one.  It's a family-sized portion that will leave leftovers, but not a ridiculous amount.  Just invite a couple of friends and family members over.  Enjoy!

Sopa de Gallina con Albondigas Nicaraguense 
(Nicaraguan Hen/Chicken Soup with Meatballs)

14 cups of water
1 large whole chicken or hen (marinated at least an hour in lots of smashed fresh garlic (6 cloves?), salt (1/2 TB), paprika (1/2 tsp), 1/4 onion (chopped), and pepper), cut up (not bite sized, but into legs, breasts, etc)
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
6 garlic cloves
2 tomatoes (peeled by blanching quickly in hot water then peeling), chopped
5 stalks of fresh mint (wash and leave whole)
2 stalks of flat leaf parsley (whole)
1 stalk of cilantro (whole)
1 tsp celery leaves, chopped (they come attached to celery but you are using leaves only)
1 onion, chopped finely (for the broth)
1/3 TB achiote (eng - annatto), dissolved in water (use the marinade from the smoky garlicky chicken post or approximate its ingredients.  That is the achiote I'm referring to here.)
1/4 cup bitter/sour orange juice (span - naranja agria - found in the Latin section of any supermarket or in any Latin market.  I recommend Goya or Badia brand)
juice of 1 lime (always choose your limes by feeling how heavy they are in your hand.  The heaviest ones have the most juice)
3 TB salt
pepper to taste (maybe 1/2 tsp)

***see other ingredients under the meatballs section***

1 small buttercup squash, cut into quarters 
(wash well with soap and water, rinse, then remove seeds and stringy fibers and leave on the peel)

1/2 small-medium  cabbage, cut into two wedges 
(leave the wedges whole to prevent falling apart during cooking)

2 stalks of corn (cut into 3 or 4 pieces each)

1 medium to large carrot (cut on a bias into 1/4" thick slices)

2 yellow but firm plantains (minimal black streaking), (cut into thirds or quarters)

1 chayote squash, sliced into lengthwise quarters then cubed into 1-1/2" blocks 
(peel then remove the white heart with a spoon) (optional) (it has no flavor, just a light broccoli-stem-like crunch and is used often in Nica food)

1 medium yuca root 
(choose the most narrow and slender one, these are the best in flavor.  Be sure there are no soft spots, avoid black spot, if possible) (cut into 2 - 2-1/2" thick rounds) (you do not peel yucca with a peeler, rather by breaking through the hard peel with a vertical blow with the blade of a knife, then lifting off the peel by sliding the knife under the pink under layer and pulling it upwards and back)

2 yautia/malanga/coco yam roots 
(found at SE Asian markets (see my market list) and  sometimes at Mi Pais Mart on Hull St near Walmsley, but call ahead--do not ask for  
coco yam; no one knows that word except West Africans and West Indians) ( **cut 
 these into 1" thick rounds**)

2 level cups of Maseca corn flour
All of the chicken breast from the chicken cooked in the soup above (finely shredded by 
1/2 stick of butter (not margarine)
1 egg, beaten
achiote (just enough dissolved achiote to give a reddish orange color)
broth from the soup once meat is cooked (used to moisten the flour and form a dough)
1 stalk of mint, finely chopped
2 stalks of cilantro
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 TB naranja  agria
salt (at least 1 tsp, maybe two)
pinch of pepper

Bring the water with the salt, chopped garlic, onion, bell pepper, black pepper, and the achiote to a boil over medium heat (go ahead and cover at this point to reach boiling point faster).  

Once at boiling point, add in your marinated chicken that you've cut into pieces (legs, wings, etc).  I like to take the skin off of everything but the wings.  There is variation on this particular part as some people will take all of the skin off and others will leave it all on.  I've had it both way and, I must say, with all of the skin on, the amount of added flavor is amazing.  A happy medium for me is to follow my suggestion of skinning all but the wings.   Sometimes I even add in a little of the skin I cut off and remove it once its flavor gets into the broth.  As the chicken boils, a frothy foam will appear on the top.  Scoop this foam off and discard it as it appears throughout the cooking process.

Once the chicken breast is cooked (test by inserting a fork.  It is done if the fork goes in smoothly, without resistance), remove it and set it aside to cool.  You will use the breast to make meatballs.  

At this point, once you've removed the chicken, add in the plantain, carrots, buttercup squash, cabbage wedges, and yuca.  You will add the other faster-cooking veggies later.  Let these all cook for 10 minutes. 

After the ten minutes are up, add in tomato, bitter orange juice, lime juice, parsley, mint, celery leaf chayote, malanga, and corn.  After 15 minutes have passed, add in the raw meatballs.  Once they float, turn off the burner.  The soup is now ready to enjoy with white rice or tortilla!

Meatball preparation:
Mix all of the ingredients from the meatballs section above, adding in enough soup broth to form a dough.  Roll the dough into golf-ball-sized balls.  

When the chayote is done, it will still have a light crunch.  Do not cook it to the point that it has no crunch.  Malanga is the softest of the root vegetables we are using, so be careful not to overcook it.  If you see that it softens before everything else is done, take it out and add it again once everything is done.  The same goes for the buttercup squash.  If you see that it will get too soft and fall apart if you leave it in through the whole cooking process, remove it and re-add it once everything else has cooked.

Serve with white rice and a thick, warm homemade tortilla

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