Sunday, August 17, 2008

Recipe: Tortilla Soup

This is one of my all time favorites, and there are a number of ways to make this, so it's hard to go wrong.  You can make it very light, to serve as a "cup o' soup" appetizer, or fill it up with chicken and/or veggies to make a meal out of it. This can be a veg or non-veg dish - just substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth, and that's it.

Start with six cups of chicken broth.  First choice - homemade broth from a roasted chicken. Second choice, fresh broth from the store.  Third choice, canned broth (in those cardboard boxes) on the grocer's shelf. Last choice - chicken boullion cubes. When I cook chicken or turkey, I like to take the carcass and make a nice broth. Just bring it all to a boil, and then let it simmer for a couple of hours. I was reading a cooking book about making consomme, and for that, they were simmering very clean bones for something like 8 hours to make a very clear broth. That's not what we're doing here - I'll throw in the skin and everything. After cooking, strain it well and use immediately or refrigerate.

If you refrigerate the broth after making it, the fat will solidify on the top, and you can easily spoon it off before using it for a recipe. If you intend to use it immediately, you'll have to separate the fat with one of those broth cups with the spout that pours the broth from the bottom of the cup.  I've also found that if I put a freshly made broth in the refrigerator rather than the freezer, I'll be more likely to use it in the next week. I still have three tubs of turkey broth in the freezer from Thanksgiving 2005.   

The other feature of tortilla soup is, well, the tortillas. Corn tortillas are required for this - and they don't have to be too fresh, as you're going to fry them up. If you're making an appetizer, use one tortilla per person, and for a meal, use two. This is a bit more than you'll put into the soup, but people tend to snack on these things. I like to cut the tortillas into 1/4" wide strips, then fry them in batches - you don't want to put so many in there that they stick together. Get your oil good and hot so that one drop of water dribbled in the pan makes a mighty commotion (about 7 on my electric range). If the oil is too hot, the tortillas will brown immediately. If not hot enough, they will be greasy and soggy. Your job is to find the middle ground. If you find the middle ground, the tortilla strips should become nice and crispy within around one minute, and still retain their yellow color.

The recipe
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • fried tortilla strips
  • two medium sized tomatoes
  • 1/2 large white onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 habanero or jalapeno pepper (watch out if you're a softie!)
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp salt
  • a few turns of fresh grated black pepper
  • 1 cup grated cheddar or jack cheese
  • 2 ripe avocados
  • (optional) a handful of cooked chicken pieces (i use leftovers from a roast and make this the next day)
  • (optional) fresh carrots / chayote squash
After washing (I assume you're clean - I'm talking about the vegetables here), put all of the vegetables into an oven proof dish and broil on low for a few minutes - maybe just two or three.  You will probably have to remove the peppers before completing this exercise, as the recipe does not call for "the charred remains of one habanero pepper."  The goal is to get the tomatoes nice and falling apart, and the onion sweetly smoking.  I prefer to use a smoked onion for this - cut in half and put in the smoker, but I'm not always smoking. The garlic should be a nice paste at this point.

Bring the chicken broth to a boil, slice and dice all of your vegetables (including the optional ones) and toss them in. Add the spices, stir, and bring to a nice simmer. If you're using additional vegetables such as carrots or squash, you want to let this simmar for at least 15 minutes to get those flavors to blend. Otherwise, 10 minutes is OK. If you're adding chicken to the soup, add it about two to three minutes before serving. Chicken boiled to pieces for a long time loses its flavor, and since you already have a nice chicken broth, all you need from these pieces of chicken is substance (and you need it to warm up, eh?). I trust that you've already completed making the tortilla chips by now, or you will have to just put this pot on a back burner and let it go a bit longer.

Grate the cheese and slice up the avocados. You can allow your guests to make their own bowls with an assembly line of chips, cheese, soup, then avocado, or you can serve it yourself. Put the chips on the bottom, then a pinch of cheese, pour in the soup, and garnish with avocado.

This will easily make four big bowls or six to eight cups o' soup.

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