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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Classic Mexican Comfort Food: Tortilla Soup

 Classic Mexican Comfort Food:  Tortilla Soup

Classic Mexican Comfort Food:  Tortilla Soup
by Victoria Challancin

Note:  All photos but one are taken by my son, Zachary Popovsky.  Check out Zack's website here.

There are many ways to judge a restaurant:  the excellence of the food in general (of course), cleanliness, friendliness of the staff, price.  So many things to consider.  But for me, when judging the standard of a Mexican restaurant, I look for one thing:  the quality of its Tortilla Soup.

Often called Sopa Azteca, Tortilla Soup can be found throughout Mexico.  Like most common comfort food dishes, variations abound and every Mexican cook has her own way of preparing it. And every Mexican child of that mother, whether 10 or 60, prefers it just the way mom made it. This particular version is my own, though I confess to not ever making it quite the exact same way each time I prepare it.  This particular version I tested as Culinary Producer for a Food Network show for Marcela Valladolid, so I know that it works.  In the end, Marcela chose her own version, which can be seen here.

My own preference is to have a rich chicken broth base, slightly thickened with ground up corn tortillas, not enough to make a really thick soup, but enough to give more body than a plain broth would have.  I add either an ancho chile or a pasilla chile to the basic thickener of tomatoes, onion, and garlic.  I also always add a sprig or two of epazote, that quintessential Mexican herb, to my broth.  The cheese could be sharp Mexican cotija, asadero, Manchego, or Oaxacan (for more on Mexican cheeses see my post explaining them and how to use them here).  If you don't have access to Mexican cheeses, you can substitute mozzarella or Monterey Jack.  Serving the complex, smokey chipotle chiles on the side allows the diner to add whatever degree of heat he or she prefers.Whatever style of tortilla soup you prefer, you should end up with a perfect blending of rich Mexican flavors, a harmony of tastes, a symphony of texture, flavor, heat, and comfort.

Lining a skillet with aluminum foil proved to be too messy for television and Food Network, but trust me, it is a great technique to use at home as the roasting tomatoes and onions tend to stick to your pan and make quite a mess.  Using aluminum foil makes for quick, easy clean up--and who doesn't want that, right?

San Miguel readers of this post will write and ask me who, in my humble opinion, has the best tortilla soup in town.  For me, it is Media Naranja, where it is consistently good--rich, but not too tomatoey, spicy, but not killer, gooey with cheese...perfect.

Ancho chiles:  Zack would not be pleased if I said this was his photo--it's not.  It's mine.

Ancho simply means "wide" in Spanish.  It is a dried form of the chile poblano though many cultivars exist.  Dark, ruddy brown and very wrinkled, the ancho glows a cranberry red when held up to the light.  When rehydrated, it turns a brick red.  Generally, the ancho is considered to be about a 3 out of 10 on the heat scale.  Its delectable flavor, redolent of dried fruits like figs, prunes, or dates, as well as  a complexity that enhances everything it touches, makes it a very popular chile, the most popular dried chile used in Mexico.  It also commonly appears in American-style chilli powder and is used ground as an addition to desserts, especially chocolate ones. [Yes, I spell the fruit "chile" and the American dish or powder "chilli"]

Cook's Note:  The blended corn tortillas act as thickeners.  This soup should not be as thick as a cream soup, but should have some body.  Four to six tortillas should be sufficient for this.  I usually add the herb epazote, Chenopodium ambrosioides, to my broth, but where I made this version in Los Angeles, I didn't have access to it.  I usually make my broth with chicken necks, backs and a few feet, plus half a head of garlic, a white onion (don't use yellow ones as the flavor is just wrong for Mexican cooking), and a few sprigs of epazote, or for other purposes other than tortilla soup,  cilantro or even mint.  A black pasilla chile can be substituted for the chile ancho, if preferred, but note the confusion that in some areas of the US, ancho chiles are actually called pasilla, in which case you are using an ancho anyway!  See my notes on Mexican cinnamon below.

Recipe:  Tortilla Soup
Sopa de Tortilla
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Serves 6

6 large plum tomatoes
1 small white onion or a 1-inch-thick slice of a large white onion, peeled
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 medium-large ancho chile, stemmed, seeded, and torn into large pieces
6 cups rich chicken broth
4 to 6 corn tortillas
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 corn tortillas, cut into 1/2-inch wide strips
Canola oil, for shallow frying

6 to 8 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
Mexican sour cream or crème fraîche, for serving
2 Haas avocados, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes or slices
1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican melting cheese or mozzarella

For the Soup:
LIne a heavy sauté pan with aluminum foil.  Place over medium-high heat until hot.  Put the tomatoes, peeled onion, and unpeeled garlic cloves in the pan.  Roast, turning frequently until garlic is soft, about 10 minutes. Remove garlic when soft and slightly blackened.  When cool enough to handle, peel garlic and place in a blender jar.  Continue roasting tomatoes and onion for another 2 to 4 minutes.  Remove onion and put in blender jar with garlic.  Roast the tomatoes, which should be charred and blackened in spots, for another 5 to 8 minutes.  Place in blender.  Carefully puree the contents of the blender.  It should be slightly thick; add two tortillas to the blender with enough chicken broth to blend easily.  Set aside.

Put the remaining chicken broth in a large pot.  Add the contents of the blender to the pot along with the ancho chile and 2 to 4 more corn tortillas, depending on the thickness desired.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for 20 minutes to blend flavors.  Carefully puree the soup in batches in the blender.  Return to pot and simmer for 5 minutes.  Check and adjust seasoning.

For the Tortilla Strips:
In a medium-sized heavy skillet,pour enough oil to reach a depth of 1/2 inch.  Heat over medium-high heat until very hot, but not smoking.  Add the tortilla strips in batches and fry until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon.  Drain on paper towels.  Set aside.

To serve:
Ladle the soup into 6 individual serving bowls.  Serve whole chipotle chiles, Mexican sour cream, avocados, cheese, and tortilla strips on the side.

A Note on Mexican Cinnamon:
Mexican cinnamon is a loose-bark variety exported from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Mexico.  It is soft and easy to break, unlike cassia, the traditional type sold in many grocery stores.  Look for True Cinnamon, Ceylon Cinnamon, or Mexican Cinnamon or canela to use in Mexican recipes.  It is available at Mexican or Latin groceries.

Parting Shot:  Mexican Limes and Mexican  Crema
For a really authentic Mexican flavor, look for Mexican limes or key limes and Mexican-style sour cream, called crema or crema ácificada.  In a pinch crème fraîche can be substituted--as can American sour cream if absolutely necessary.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Remember that like life, recipes are meant to be shared, but please ask permission before using text or photos.  Thanks!


Hotly Spiced said...

Lovely to see your son's great work Victoria. I have never had Tortilla Soup. Those ancho chillies look interesting too - we don't see those in Australia either! The history behind this is very interesting. Unbelievable how everyone cooks this and all versions vary slightly. I would love to try this xx

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Charlie, it's probably like wattle seeds, barramundi, blue swimmers, Balmain bugs, and real homemade lamingtons...a few of the things I have come to wish for over the years...One day, surely, I'll make it to Australia.

Eha said...

For me also this is something quite new. However, it is not really hard to make, looks moreish and will be tried: I can truly see it as a comfort food one can change around to one's liking! And I have looked up your son's page and shall go back for a thorough read when a few moments become available. You and your husband have brought up a very talented and unusual young man, methinks. Quite a lot of work done already re Mexico, and food, dear Mother :) ! You must be very proud . . .

corrie said...

I love all kinds of chillies! I have a contact where I can buy Australian Queensland Eucalyptus gum smoked Jalapeños. They are so beautiful. :-)

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

I thank each of you for your kind comments. Much appreciated. Do try this soup--it's the chipotle chiles that are served separately that make it spicy, and you only have to add a wee bit, if preferred. The ancho, if you can find it, is mild. I must say thatAustralian Queensland Eucalyptus gum-smoked jalapeños sound divine!

And yes, Zack is an unusual young man all the way round. He's a keeper, says this proud mum.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I've read about tortilla soup but haven't yet tried it. The Mexican that we get here seems a bit different from other countries too. Thanks for the recipe and for the tip about the foil too! :)

Yvette ~ Muy Bueno said...

Your recipe sounds fabulous Victoria! I'm all about the rich thick broth too. YUM!!! Next time I make it I'll be sure to try adding some epazote. Mmm! Que rico!

Anonymous said...

I love the look of this and must make soon! I also like the way it has been cut! Will have to remember that. said...

I think this is one of my favorites. I have never made it, but have it often at my friends restaurant "Mexico Lindo" in Mahattan. Now I have my own recipe...thanks!