My name is Jason. These are my thoughts.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tortilla Soup: 12 Years In The Making

I love soup. No, you don't understand.

I mean, I really really love soup. Which is why I have been playing with making tortilla soup for over ten years. Over those years, I have come to a few conclusions about what does and does not make a good tortilla soup. There are a few things I should say about this soup: First, I make it in massive quantities. Soup is best when you make it in bulk, it has room to reduce, and let the flavors breathe. And second, this is not a 'from scratch' recipe. The flavors are far too complex for me to actually want to build them from scratch. I'm lazy about some stuff. Maybe some day I'll crush my own peppers, but not now. And so to illustrate how totally obsessed I am with this, here is my far too elaborately described recipe:

First and foremost: tortilla chips
The whole idea and origin of tortilla soup is an answer to the question: "what do I do with all these tortilla chips that are either stale, or too small to use as a guacamole shovel?" Here's what I do:
  • the chips you use will be the base of your soup. So it's important. I like very simple, plain chips, ie: if your chips have more than three ingredients (Corn, oil, salt), find a better chip. I good place to get them is at your favorite restaurant. Most places will sell you a bag for a few bucks and they are usually made on-site. Or honestly - Chevy's Fresh Mex. They make good chips at least. Also, make a mental note if your chips are salted, and season your soup accordingly. It can be easy to forget that some of the ingredients already have salt, so easy does it.
  • when your bag of chips is down to the 'crumble bed' I transfer it to a zip-lock and put it in the freezer. Tortilla chips have oil in them, so if you just leave them around and it ain't soup season yet, the oil will go rancid and that's just nasty. They will last up to a year in the freezer if you store them well. (really? sure! why not!)
  • before you put them into the soup, crush them. You can just leave them in the zip-lock bag (open it a little or it will explode) and bash it with a meat tenderizer, or a can of peaches in heavy syrup, or use a mortar and pestle if you like breaking out the fancy kitchen gear.
  • when you serve the soup, that's when to use fresh unbroken tortilla chips on top to garnish. they should play much like crackers do in gringo soups.
Making the Soup:
For the soup base, I use tomatoes and chicken broth. There are two ways to get chicken broth: 1) Get a chicken, roast it, carve it, boil the bones in salted water for 10 hours. or 2) Buy chicken broth. I prefer the second method.  If you're not a fan of meat, you can use vegetable broth, and then skip the chicken in this recipe.  That's up to you.

  • 8-10 cups of water
  • 2-4 cups of chicken broth (if you use bouillon, do your own math. I hate math)
  • 1 large onion, finely diced (white)
  • 1-2 cups crushed tortilla chips (I like 2 cups, but maybe you like less)
  • 1 16oz. can of stewed tomatoes (feel free to stew your own tomatoes from scratch)
  • 8oz of your favorite salsa (really? isn't that cheating? yes it is)*
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  • 2-3 chicken breasts/thighs
  • 2 cups finely chopped spinach, or maybe broccoli?
  • 1/2 cup re-fried beans (I prefer vegetarian re-fried beans, and yes, from a freaking can - get over it)
  • Extra sharp cheddar cheese (grated)
In a giant stock pot, throw in the water, chicken broth (but save a little, see below), salsa, tomatoes, re-fried beans, lime juice, and crushed tortilla chips. stir over a high flame. Alternatively, if you want more of a 'toasted' flavor, turn on the flame, and put the crushed chips in the pot alone for a few minutes, stir constantly. You can smell when they get that 'toasted' flavor going, then add the rest of the stuff - just be careful, the pot is hot and the liquid will squeal and bounce on contact!  I prefer this method.  It produces a deeper richer flavor.

Sauté the onions and chicken breasts with a little oil. when the breasts are about 1/2 done, pour in a 1/4 cup of the chicken broth, this is also a good time to add in the vegetables, whatever they are, spinach, broccoli, etc. Cover and finish. ( if proteins aren't salted and hydrated when you put them in a soup, they will get the flavor sucked out of them)

When the soup gets to a boil, let it simmer for at least an hour. Add another cup of water if it's getting too thick. Then throw in the chicken and onions. Let them cook into the soup for another 30 minutes. And done. To serve, sprinkle some grated cheese and then some lightly broken fresh tortilla chips.

*Salsa. The salsa I use in this recipe is one of any of the small 7oz cans of salsa you can find in the 'ethinc' isle of your grocery, or just in the salsa isle of your neighborhood store, depending on where you shop. Just make sure it's not pico de gallo since that's just tomatoes and onions. It should be something with at least tomatillo, and some other kind of peppers to give it kick. If you're serious about heat, just add a Chipotle pepper for an added smokey kick. These salsas (Herdez makes a nice green salsa for example) are all very salty, which is why, if you notice, there's no salt in the recipe.

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