Although I’d never had tortilla soup before coming to Southern California, it’s already one of my favourite Mexican dishes and it’s rare for me resist it if I see it on the menu. Essentially, it consists of a (chicken or vegetable) broth that’s been combined with tomatoes, chillies, onion, garlic and strips of fried tortilla. It may then be garnished with a range of additional ingredients, perhaps including avocado and pico de gallo (a combination of uncooked tomatoes, onions and cilantro). Only some versions include chicken, and it’s just as good without. Together, it’s a beautiful combination of sharp, hot and sweet flavours. It’s bold and robust but also delicate and fresh. Its vivid colour, piquant aroma and tempting presentation make it irresistible even before you’ve tasted it. I was really interested to try it on my recent visit to Mexico and was glad that I did. It was spicy, smoky, intense, beautifully garnished, and just incredibly satisfying.
Finally deciding that it was time for me to try making this at home, I recently began looking for recipes. Although it seems as though the soup originates – probably – from Central Mexico, it has clearly been adopted and manipulated across the US for decades. Despite understanding a little about the complexities of food history, family tradition and the ways in which recipes can be transformed (often repeatedly) as they move between cultures and places (back-and-forth), I have been genuinely amazed at the number of different ways there are to make this soup. And like many of the best dishes, the recipes that I found ranged from the very basic to the extremely complex. Some call for the use of specific types – and often multiple varieties – of chilli and / or insist that they have to be roasted (along with all the other vegetables) prior to their inclusion. Others maintain that the onion has to be caramalized, the soup must be thickened with ground tortilla or that the tomato base cannot be anything other than homemade. A few claim that it cannot be made without epazote, which is a herb native to parts of Mexico with a very distinctive taste that’s often likened to creosote. There are literally thousands of variations. All claim to be purists.
I decided that I should probably start by attempting to imitate what I was familiar with. So, I based my soup on examples from Saveur and America’s Test Kitchen – both of which have a good reputation, and which also appear to represent what I’ve eaten here in the US.
Overall, I’d say that this was a nice soup that bore some resemblance to the versions I’ve had elsewhere, but I’m sure that I could do better. Although it was spicy, it lacked the depth and intensity of flavour that makes tortilla soup so very, very good. Next time I’ll begin by finding my ingredients in a Latino market. I’ll also try roasting my jalapeño chile – as well as the bell peppers if I include them again – to intensify the flavour. And I’ll be interested to see the difference that other chillies might make. Ancho chillies also have a smoky flavour and are included in a number of the recipes that I found, so that might be worth trying. It’s an intriguing challenge, and one – I feel – that could slowly develop into a lifelong
obsession search. Advice – or perhaps even your own secret ingredient / family recipe – is more than welcome…
Recipe: Chicken Tortilla Soup
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
½ red bell pepper, diced
½ green pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 quantity red tomato salsa (see below for recipe)
1 litre chicken (or vegetable) stock
1 dried chipotle chile, stemmed and seeded
1 cooked chicken breast, shredded into bite-size pieces
The chicken is purely optional and can easily be omitted
4 (6 inch) tortillas, cut into strips
Salt to taste
A handful of coriander / cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1 avocado, peeled and diced
½ cup sour cream
2 limes, cut into 8 wedges
For the red tomato salsa:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can (14oz) chopped tomatoes (unsalted)
1 jalapeño chile (depending on taste), stemmed – seeded if desired – and chopped
You don’t want to overdo the chile, but remember that it’s supposed to be warm and spicy
Begin by making the red tomato salsa:
Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat and cook the onions until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute.
Add the remaining salsa ingredients and using a stick blender process until smooth. (This can also be done by transferring to a food processor, and returning to the saucepan when done).
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for 20 minutes.
To make the tortilla soup:
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions and cook until golden brown. Add the red and green pepper and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook for another minute.
Add the red tomato salsa, stock, chipotle chile and salt to taste. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 375°F / 190°C / Gas Mark 5.
Add the cooked and shredded chicken breast and cook for a further 10 minutes, or until the chicken is thoroughly heated through. Whilst this is happening, put the tortilla strips onto a baking sheet and into the pre-heated oven for about 5 minutes, which should be enough time for them to heat through. (It’s traditional to fry the tortilla strips, but I’ve seen this in a few recipes and thought it would be more straight-forward).
Ladle the soup into serving bowls, and place a few of the tortilla strips on top. Top with a dollop of sour cream, some chopped coriander / cilantro, and a few avocado pieces. Squeeze the lime juice over. Alternatively, take the garnishes to the table and let people help themselves.
Adapted from recipes by Saveur and America’s Test Kitchen