Would you believe that sometimes I return from a culinary research trip feeling literally fed up with Mexican food? Contrary to what you might think, the effort to find and taste as many new things as possible can be a physical ordeal for people like me, who generally prefer to eat lightly. My biggest problem is usually fresh vegetables — or lack of same — in an endless sea of meat and poultry and seafood dishes. Why do all the beautiful vegetables grown by neighborhood farmers do such a disappearing act between Mexican markets and Mexican tables?
Well, of course they don't, really, at least in everyday meals. But both restaurant menus and the proudest offerings of home cooks are so heavy on animal protein that my digestive system starts crying for mercy after a few days. To be able to eat my fill of fresh garden vegetables during one of these trips is a rare treat, so I was in heaven when I encountered this soupy, aromatic stew at La Brisa del Mar restaurant in Veracruz. The rich brothy sauce or saucy broth can be made with either beef or chicken.
I wish I had a neat definition for tesmoles, but about all I feel justified in saying is that they belong to the big family of soup-stews so beloved in the central-southern areas if Mexico, and that they invariably seem to include minute and toothsome masa dumplings (bolitas). The medley of green vegetables used in this version can be varied according to what’s good in the market. At La Brisa del Mar, the staff uses large, mature, fresh lima beans that stand up well to cooking. In this country it’s not always easy to find a good equivalent. I’ve successfully used frozen Fordhook limas or fresh green fava beans. I suggest avoiding baby limas. The vegetables in this dish should be full-size and sturdy, not tiny and super-delicate. If you have to use baby limas, add them only at the end, after the other vegetables and just before the bolitas.
The bolitas are cousins of the chochoyotes of Oaxaca. The reason for their funny indented shape is that it helps cook them faster when added to a soup or stew. I would not try to substitute any fat other than lard; it holds them together compactly while making them fluffy without a hint of greasiness.
This recipe appeared originally in my book Zarela's Veracruz: Mexico's Simplest Cuisine.
In a mixing bowl, stir the lard and salt into the masa to make a smooth dough. Shape the mixture into balls the size of large marbles, slightly flattening each one and using your index finger to press a small indentation into each dumpling. Cover the bolitas with a damp, clean kitchen towel and set them aside.
Place the meat in a large saucepan or small stockpot with the unpeeled onion, 4 unpeeled garlic cloves, and 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste. Add 6 to 7 cups cold water (or enough to cover the meat) and bring to a boil over high heat. Quickly reduce the heat to maintain a low rolling boil; skim off any froth that rises to the top. Cook, partly covered, until the meat is tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
When the meat is tender, lift it out, letting it drain well, and set aside. Strain the stock and return it to the rinsed-out pot; set aside.
Coarsely chop the remaining onion and garlic cloves. If you are using dried hoja santa, proceed as follows: Purée the onion and garlic in a blender with 6 hoja santa leaves, half the cilantro, 2 of the jalapeños, and about 1 cup of the strained stock, or enough to facilitate blending. If using fresh hoja santa, purée in exactly the same way but use the entire bunch of cilantro. Pour the mixture into the remaining reserved stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Quickly reduce the heat to maintain a low rolling boil. Taste for seasoning and add a pinch or two of salt if desired.
Return the meat to the soup. Add the lima beans and cook for 3 minutes. Notch a small cross in the tops of the remaining 2 jalapeños and add to the soup along with the corn, green beans, chayotes, and zucchini. Cook for about 7-8 minutes, or until the vegetables are just crisp-tender. Add the bolitas to the soup, and cook just until they float to the top, about 3 to 5 minutes.
If using dried hoja santa, place the remaining 4 leaves in the blender with the rest of the cilantro and puree with a tablespoon of stock or water. Fresh hoja santa can be pureed by itself, using just a few tablespoons of stock or water. Stir into the soup and serve immediately.