Our recent post on bone stock covered the process of making a big batch to store for a while. Our favorite versions of stocks aren’t nearly so involved – They’re the quick, simple stocks made most often from a chicken carcass, maybe a turkey, some fish, or fresh veggies. Recently, M got the crud, and was jonesin’ for tortilla soup. That is not only serious comfort food, it’s actually been proven to be good for you when you’re sick. She had some at several local restaurants, but they weren’t quite cutting it – It needed our mojo to be just right.
You wouldn’t be terribly out of line in assuming that tortilla soup is something invented to appease Gringos, but it ain’t necessarily so. While there are claims that the dish originated in the American Southwest back in the 1960s, there are far more, (and far older), roots in Mexican regional cooking. The dish is popular in Mexico City, as well as generally throughout central Mexico, where it’s called Sopa de Tortilla. Add beans and it’s Sopa Tarasca. Leave out the chicken and it’s Sopa Azteca – There are a bunch more variants, of course. It’s a sure bet that the folks that begat Tex Mex and Southwestern cooking brought their recipes with them from down south.
As with so many touchstone dishes, there isn’t really one master recipe, which is good – The one you love will do. Tortilla soup is so popular and so good because it comes in so many varieties, in so many homes – It’s made most often because there are things in the kitchen that need to get used, like a leftover chicken – We don’t make it exactly the same every time here, and I don’t believe most Mexican cooks do either – The consistency lies in a few fundamental ingredients. What needs to be in there? Homemade stock, chiles, aromatics, tomatoes, proper herbs, and crisp corn tortilla strips, far as I’m concerned.
Your stock will most times be poultry, but pork or veggie wouldn’t be out of line either. Chiles are a must, and those do need to be a dried, venerable variety – Pasillo, Ancho, Guajillo, Colorado, Chipotle, Mulato – whatever floats your boat. Those add a depth and richness of flavor, (and various levels of heat), without which tortilla soup is just soup. Check out our Chile page for the scoop on what each is packing. Any great soup needs an aromatic base; here I think onion and garlic are the must-haves. Tomatoes should be tasty, and fresh if possible – no mass produced red cardboard. Most folks call Mexican oregano and cumin the must-have herbs, but you can certainly cut that back to just cumin and sub something else you love for the oregano, like we do. The tortilla strips could be from corn tortillas that need to get used – Often enough, that’s another trigger that leads to this lovely stuff getting made.
Meat isn’t necessary in tortilla soup – remember that Azteca version I mentioned. If you do add it, it should really be something that needs to get used up. A chicken carcass with some meat on the bones is probably the primary trigger for whipping up a batch. You could use turkey, or pork, or fish if you wanted or needed to. Again, there really isn’t a ‘classic’ version of tortilla soup – it’s as individual as Mamma’s bolognese. So, here’s my swing at this heavenly stuff. The method we employ yields wonderful depth and breadth of flavor, which is really what it’s all about. If you’ve got homemade stock at the ready, good for you – You can go down to the part that reads, For the Tortilla Soup – Just in case you don’t, we’ve throw in a recipe for that too.
This recipe is a perfect opportunity to go explore your local Latin grocery. You’ll find the chiles, crema, queso, veggies, tortillas, herbs, and maybe even a chicken there.
Sopa de Tortilla Urbán
1 Fat and Happy Roasting Chicken – you’ll want about a pound of meat for the soup, plus the whole carcass for stock.
3 medium White or Yellow Onions
3 Fat Carrots
5-6 Stalks Fresh Celery
5-6 Cloves Fresh Garlic
2-3 dried Ancho or Pasilla Negra Chiles
4-5 large fresh Tomatoes (or a bunch of little guys – You want around 2 cups worth)
4 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1 Tablespoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground Cumin
6-10 Corn Tortillas
For the Toppings –
2 ripe Avocados
1 pint Mexican Crema
Fresh Mexican Cheese – I recommend Cotija if you want something that won’t melt much, and Chihuahua otherwise.
The day before you’re ready for soup, go and get your ingredients.
Rough chop one onion, 1 carrot, and a couple celery stalks, (AKA Mire Poix)
Stuff a fresh chicken with the mire poix, and spread the rest across a low sided baking dish or cast iron skillet, and set the chicken on top of that.
Roast the chicken and enjoy a great meal.
Next day, strip all the meat you can, (light and dark), from the carcass – pull or shred that as you’re doing the deed.
Set that meat aside in an airtight container, in the fridge.
Preheat your oven to 350° F and set a rack in the middle position.
Arrange the carcass along with the veggies you stuffed it with on a baking sheet or shallow roasting pan.
Add a couple of cloves of trimmed, peeled, and smashed garlic.
Smear 3 or 4 tablespoons of tomato paste evenly over the carcass.
Roast all that for 30-45 minutes, until the bones are lightly browned.
Rough chop another onion and the remaining carrots and celery.
Remove the pan from the oven.
Add all the roasted stuff, the freshly chopped veggies, and a couple of Turkish bay leaves into a 16 cup stock pot.
Add 10 cups of fresh water to the stock pot and set it over a medium high flame.
When the stock starts to boil, turn it down to maintain a low simmer.
Let everything cook for at least 3 hours, and as long as 6 hours.
Set up a colander in or above another stock pot or mixing bowl large enough to handle 6-8 cups of liquid.
Carefully pour the stock through the colander, and discard all the solids – You’ve cooked pretty much everything out of that stuff by this point, so it can sure go into your compost pile.
Cool the stock by filling a stoppered sink as high as you can with a 50%-50% mix of ice and water, around the freshly filled stock pot.
Drop the temp of the stock to below 70° F within 2 hours, and from 70° F to under 40° F within 4 hours after that – Total cooling time, 6 hours or less.
Refrigerate the stock overnight. This will allow a lot of the suspended solids to drop out of the solution, and also allow the fat to rise. In the morning, you’ll find clearer stock with a nice, solid layer of fat on top.
Use a wide slotted spoon or handled strainer and carefully skim off the layer of fat, and discard that.
This stock is now ready to make soup. You’ll need 8 cups for the tortilla soup. You can freeze the rest in sanitized quart mason jars, leaving at least 2” headroom for expansion.
For the Tortilla Soup
Preheat your oven to 350° F, with a rack in the middle position.
Peel and trim a whole onion, then cut in half.
Rinse tomatoes and leave them whole.
Trim and peel 4 cloves of garlic, leaving them whole.
Arrange onion, 3 tomatoes, and garlic on a baking sheet.
Roast veggies for 30 minutes, then remove from heat and allow to cool enough to handle.
Dice the 4th (and 5th if you like lots) tomato, and set aside in a mix en place bowl.
In a cast iron comal or skillet over medium heat, toast your whole chiles – lay them flat, pressing them down with a spatula, for about 15 seconds, then turn and repeat – Do this for two turns on each side, total of about a minute, tops – Don’t over-toast!
Dice roasted onion and set aside in a mis bowl.
Add toasted chiles, roasted tomatoes, and garlic to a blender vessel with 2 cups of chicken stock.
Pulse this mix into a smooth purée, about 1 minute, tops.
In a soup or stock pot over medium heat, add the purée and the diced onion.
Cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, whisking steadily. The purée will reduce notably, to a thick sauce.
Add remaining 6 cups of stock and about a pound of shredded chicken, stir to incorporate.
When the soup starts to simmer, reduce heat to just maintain that.
Add lemon thyme and cumin, stir to incorporate.
Preheat oven to 400° F, with a rack in the middle position.
Slice tortillas into strips about 1/4” wide by 3” or so.
Bake strips until they’re golden brown and crispy, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool a bit.
Soup should simmer for 30 minutes to fully marry and develop flavors.
Grate chihuahua or cotija cheese.
Peel and cut avocado into roughly 1/2” cubes.
Serve soup hot, with tortilla strips, cheese, and crema for topping.
You might also like more chopped fresh onion, or even fresh pico de gallo, crunchy iceberg lettuce, fresh diced jalapeños, fresh tomato, and fresh cilantro for additional toppings, and if you do, you should have them.