One of the tensions I’ve always struggled with in regards to cooking Mexican food is that of cooking “authentic” Mexican food with the ingredients available to me in Boston. I promise this is not another one of those posts where I complain about how much Mexican produce sucks around here. Although I’m often disappointed by the quality of the ingredients I have to work with, every now and then I find a gem at at a local supermarket, or more often, at my local Farmers Market (AKA as the best farmers market).
This past Saturday while perusing Neighborhood Farm’s stand, I stumbled upon amaranth blooms. When I asked what the beautiful burgundy plant that I was eyeing was, I was informed that it was amaranth and my jaw dropped. I looked closely and sure enough, I could even see amaranth seeds within the burgundy blooms. The awesome worker at the stall also informed that they carried vegetable amaranth greens (for cooking) at which point I may have audibly squealed. She showed me the amaranth greens, which TBH I’d never known were a separate plant or that they could have beautiful burgundy markings like the ones below. I obviously had to buy a bunch. From the moment I saw the gorgeous amaranth greens, I knew that I’d recreate and amaranth soup I’d tried in Oaxaca. Before that soup, I’d only really thought of amaranth as the small puffed seeds that I mainly consumed as alegrias, mexican candy, and had never heard of amaranth leaves being edible.
I came home and flipped through my recipes from the Mexico trip to locate the recipe from the Seasons of my Heart cooking class. I was pleased to find the recipe but then dismayed that I did not have one key ingredient, the soup is officially titled “Caldo de Amaranto con Albondigas de soya,” but lo and behold, there was no soya, or soy textured protein (TVP) to be found in my house. This is one of those moments that normally sends me into a frenzy. Do I run to the store to buy TVP in order to stick to the recipe or do I make do with what I have? The choice in this case was easier, since soya is not a native Mexican ingredient and I was already amazed by the serendipity in finding amaranth greens that morning to begin with. I chose to make the soup with ground beef meatballs.
This might not seem like a conundrum to you. But I often tow the line between authenticity and integrity in relation to my food values. My food values aren’t fully hammered out yet but they go something like this: support awesome businesses and food practices and eat local and seasonal as much as possible. The obvious problem here is that eating locally and seasonally in Boston is often at odds with my intent to cook Mexican food. Sure, when I’m trying to cook enchiladas verdes, I can hunt down some puny tomatillos that were picked before their prime and traveled a week to get to me, but is it worth it? Often times, for me, the answer is no. When I do that, the food lacks the very freshness and flavor that I so admire about Mexican cuisine.
So I often choose to improvise and keep techniques and seasonings intact even as I sometimes have to change key parts of a meal to make it work. This a key question that I am currently wrestling with: can I somehow stay true to my desire to cook “Mexican” food, honoring the dishes that I love and admire, while eating with integrity?
There’s no easy answer and it’s something I’m continuing to think through, especially in light of my recent trip to Mexico, but last Saturday, I chose to improvise.
Amaranth leaves are mildly flavored and these burgundy hued ones yielded a light pink broth which perfectly complemented the smoky and spicy meatballs. This amaranth meatball soup was hearty due to the greens but could be paired with some brown rice to make it an even more filling meal.
Let me know if you give it a go!
Notes: Chintestle is a chile paste made with chiles pasillas oaxaqueños, not to be confused with chiles pasillas, salt and garlic and which is very common in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is my new favorite food as it is smoky and very spicy and a tiny bit goes a long way. If you don’t have chintestle, you can use canned chipotle chile peppers instead. Although you will need to use more to obtain the same level of smokiness and spice. You can also buy chintestle here if you want to give it a try. The chintestle is a little pricey but it smells and tastes like Oaxaca and there are so many uses for it. I did not have avocado leaves so I substituted those for bay leaves. Finally, I made my meatballs with ground beef instead of TVP, since that is what I had at home but if you want to make this soup vegetarian you simply need to substitute 1lb of ground meat for 1 cup of TVP reconstituted in 1 cup of hot water. My recipe, loosely based on Susana Trilling’s recipe for “Caldo de Amaranto con Albondigas de Soya” is below.
Amaranth Meatball Soup
Yields: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
- 1 large bunch of amaranth greens, washed and chopped
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- ½ onion, diced
- 1 teaspoon of mexican oregano
- 2 avocado leaves, or bay leaves
- Sea salt, to taste
- Black pepper, to taste
- 1 lb of ground meat
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- ¼ medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup bread crumbs
- 1 teaspoon mexican oregano
- ½ teaspoon of chintestle paste
- ½ teaspoon sea salt, more to taste
- ¼ teaspoon of black pepper
- ¼ cup oil
- Combine all ingredients for the soup except for amaranth greens with six cups of water in a small pot. Bring to boil. Cook for 10-15 minutes on medium heat. Then, add amaranth greens and cook another 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasons according to your taste.
- Combine all ingredients for meatballs in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Then shape into golf size balls.
- In a large pan, heat oil to medium heat and add meatballs. Fry meatballs for 5-8 minutes, or until fully cooked, turning them a few times so that all sides are evenly browned.
- Add meatballs to soup and serve.