"Albondigas" means "meatballs" in Spanish, and the trick to perfect albondigas soup is to put chopped mint leaves into the meatballs. The mint is what gives an albondigas soup meatball its unique flavor.
Kent's latest foray into culinary history:
Undoubtedly, this soup was originally introduced to the Spanish world from the Middle East during Islamic rule in what is now Southwestern Europe. Muslims from North Africa and Arabia conquered the Visigoths inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula in decisive battles between the years 711 and 718. Muslims continued to rule in Iberia until the 800-year-long effort known as the Reconquista was finally successful on January 2, 1492, when the last Muslim ruler of Iberia surrendered to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the same two who sent a bumbling Italian explorer out to sail the ocean blue in 1492...
The very name of the stew, "albondigas", belies its Muslim/Middle Eastern history. The word "al" is an article in Arabic translating to "the" in English, and "el" in Spanish. The name for the soup is likely some permutation of "al-bunduq", which means "hazelnut", and is applied to denote "meatball" because of the meatball's approximation of the size and shape of the hazelnut.
There are said to be more than a few recipes in book from 12th century Spain, titled Kitab al- tabihk fi Maghrib wa'al-Andalus, which reference the al-bunduq, or meatball. (I personally do not speak Arabic, so I am not an authority on this.) Given the soup's mint-and-rice-filled meat balls however, it seems obvious that the original stew was made with ground lamb, fortified with rice, and seasoned with mint and parsley. Albondigas then, is a Spanish soup, imported to Mexico with the conquistadors, with its origins in the ancient Middle Eastern, Islamic world, where rice and mint are commonly mixed with ground lamb in dishes such as dolmas.
(A perfect example of the adoption of the "al" article into European languages is found at the southern tip of Spain, the point closest to the Arabic-speaking portion of Africa, the Rock of Gibraltar. It is well known that this point of rock jutting south from the coast of Spain, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, was known in ancient times as "Gibra al Tariq", or "Turk's Head".)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup tomato sauce
3 quarts of chicken stock or beef stock OR water OR a mixture of both
2 large carrots, sliced
3 stalks celery, sliced
2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 pound ground beef
1/3 cup uncooked white rice
1 uncooked egg
1 cup chopped fresh mint leaves and/or parsley
season with Kosher salt and black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano, crumbled
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro as garnish
Heat oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and minced garlic and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce and broth mixture. Bring to boil and simmer. Add carrots and celery.
Prepare meatballs. Mix rice into meat, adding mint land parsley leaves, salt and pepper. Add raw egg. Form beef into 1-inch meatballs. Return soup to gentle simmer. Add meatballs to soup. Cover and let simmer for 1/2 hour. Add tomatoes towards the end of the 1/2 hour. Add oregano, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro.