Esmeralda Brinn Bolaños transforms the humble meatball using the rich flavors and classic techniques of Mexican cuisine. Half Mexican and half German, she is tall and she peers through large black glasses, making one feel there is no place to hide. Her smile is disarming, her wit sharp, and she is passionate about Mexican food. (She told me that my reputation for being difficult preceded me but, after a bit, decided that I was actually OK. I took this as high praise.)
After working with chef Mónica Patiño, Brinn Bolaños joined Pura Vida in San Miguel de Allende, where she gives cooking lessons to foreigners, adapting Mexican recipes to the foodstuffs of other countries. She also loves German bread baking and fermentation. In other words, she is a cook for all seasons.
In a borrowed apartment, Brinn Bolaños teaches me the art of albóndigas, small meatballs with a surprise: the meat is formed around slices of hard-cooked egg. The meat (two parts beef to one part pork) itself is mixed with either cooked rice or chicharrones (pork rind cracklings), a staple in Mexican cooking often used to accent a taco filling.
A salsa is made from charred tomatoes, onions and garlic, plus chilies and stock or water. The meatballs are cooked in this sauce for half an hour, along with chipotle chilies that have been simmered in water for 10 minutes. (Brinn Bolaños uses dried chipotles, not the canned version in adobo sauce.)
Esmeralda Brinn Bolaños taught us how to make albóndigas.
The meatballs are served with additional chicharrones and topped with a burned avocado leaf. (I discovered that Brinn Bolaños is a big fan of burning leaves and adding their charred remains as a topping. She won me over and made me wonder if “charred” is the next foundation flavor after umami.)
The result not only was delicious but showcased much of what we love about Mexican food. Char vegetables before using them for a salsa. Use chilies as a flavoring, not just for heat. Make your salsa in a blender. And harness the power of fire to transform flavor, as Brinn Bolaños did with the charred avocado leaf. No one-dimensional tomato sauce here.
Back at Milk Street, we made only minor adjustments. Instead of rice or chicharrones, we used panko breadcrumbs as a binder. We also reserved some of the salsa to add flavor to the meat mixture. For the chipotle chilies, we call for canned since the dried kind are not readily available in all supermarkets. We chilled the formed meatballs for 10 minutes before cooking so they held their shape, and we reduced the cooking time to 20 minutes.
Just like Brinn Bolaños, this recipe offers a surprise beyond the hidden slice of egg—layering flavors through simple techniques and ingredient combinations is transformative. And, please, serve with chicharrones if you can find them.