"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Tortilla soup — the improv way

by Julie Tilsner on June 30, 2008

in Soup is Easy, Soups

Talk about a hot date. Kelli arrived Saturday night bearing two bags of groceries and a six-pack of Mexican beer. “We’re making tortilla soup,” she told me.

I tried to make tortilla soup once. About three or four years ago. And the results were not pretty. I pulled a recipe off the internet, and all went well until I added the sour cream and the whole concoction curdled in front of my eyes. I ate a small bowl on principal and threw the rest away.

But I love tortilla soup. It was my favored dish at Picante up in Berkeley, years ago, where we’d eat at least once a week; the nits, then very small, feasting on beans and rice, Luke tucking into some giant wet burrito, while I hunched over chunks of avocado and tortilla strips in a spanky broth, twirling long strings of savory queso around my spoon. Ahh, bliss. Can I be blamed for trying to make it on my own?

This time, however, there would be no recipe. “I’ve read a bunch of them, and I’ve decided to just break out on my own,” said Kelli. “With these sorts of things it’s not so much the recipe as the process, anyway.” All I could do was nod, snap open a cervezas and throw myself on her superior know-how and confidence.

Which is not to say I didn’t try to participate. But it was an alarmingly complicated task, to my neophyte eyes. It took more than an hour to prepare, even using my home-made chicken stock. I tried chopping a big-ass onion using the three cut method Kelli had demonstrated at our last meeting, only to make a mockery of it and slice into my palm for my efforts. I didn’t have pepper. I ran out of salt. I’d drank the last of the white wine we might have used for deglazing the frying pan. After a while, I stepped back and watched Kelli work.

If I suck as a sous chef, there is no doubt I’m a tremendous cheerleader. I don’t think I closed my mouth for my constant oohs and aahs and general praise of her talents. Truly, there is much to learn just by watching a cook prepare a meal in your own kitchen.

Here’s her “recipe:”

8 chicken thighs
Vegetable oil

Brown chicken and transfer to pan to
finish in the oven

1 “big ass” onion, chopped or diced
6 cloves garlic
2 guajillo
beer, wine, or tequila (note to self: Everyone needs a bottle of Patron in their pantry. Buy some soon.)
6 cups chicken stock
3 chipotle chilies
in adobo
4 T tomato paste or small can puree

Sautee onion, deglaze
with alcohol, add chopped garlic and guajillo chili.
Cook for a few more
minutes, add stock.  Whisk in paste, add chipotles,

Let cool
a little and puree in blender or processor.  Strain in fine mesh,
china cap
or cheesecloth for a silky soup base.

Meanwhile, back at the cutting
board, prepare the condiments:

roasted pasilla
green onions
diced tomato
strips (cut fresh tortillas into strips, season, coat with olive oil, then roast until brown and crispy)
sour cream (Lucerne brand is delicious, like Mexican crema)
feta, goat or queso blanco (we didn’t use cheese, but please feel free. I’ll be over later to sample.)

Although I hardly helped, I did learn a great deal. I learned, for example, that you can roast peppers right n top of the stove burner, and that if you put them in a paper bag while still hot, their skins will pull right off. I learned that you NEVER wash a pepper, or you wash away the flavor (that from the very mouth of the great Diane Kennedy, who Kelli worked for in her first ever catering job as a 19-year-old). I learned that you actually can deglaze a pan with beer, and it will still smell yummy. I learned that I really should pop for a food processor.

Also this: Peppers scare me. Both the handling and eating of.

No matter. The broth, while certainly kicky, was also rich and deep; “flavors on top of flavors,” Kelli said. And when you added condiments of your choice, chunks of avocado, tortilla strips, lime juice, cilantro, or a dollop of sour cream with a few roasted, chopped peppers on top, it all went down smoothly, leaving you with a sense of profound warmth and well-being. Indeed, after my first bowl, all I could muster was a moan and a whimpered “This tastes like restaurant food!”

I knew I’d never be able to recreate this on my own. But then Kelli left me with a large portion for the week’s lunches and a bucket of leftover roast chicken. And she promised she’d be available via phone to walk me through it should I want to attempt it again.

I’m only sorry that, in true BHC fashion, I’ve misplaced my digital camera, so there is no photographic evidence that this soup actually exists. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Or show up and try some yourself while there’s still some leftovers.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

kelli July 1, 2008 at 9:16 pm

Ah, the smell of peppers roasting on the stove top…
I re-read that recipe and maybe it wasn’t clear that you brown chicken and sautee in the same pan…we are making a pan sauce here…the first layer as it were…
Oh, and you can TOTALLY make this! Just brown, sautee, deglaze, simmer and puree…and do all that with whatever you have the pantry that fits in to the tortilla soup category.
That was really fun and super delicious! We simply must do it again…


JulieR July 3, 2008 at 5:04 am

MMM, I really, really, really love tortilla soup, discovered on a car trip through Mexico with my family when I was 9. I alternated that with queso fundido and tortas de frijoles. I think it was the lime along with the cascabel chiles floating in that rich, red, chicken broth that got me hooked, right, and of course the gooey cheese and smooth avocado. OK, this is a problem because I can’t get anything anywhere near the food we are talking about down under. I mean I can approximate these recipes and others have made valiant efforts at opening mexican restaurants but, nah…just can’t cut it. I could probably do a great ceviche because the seafood here is beautiful….
Boy, do I miss all that. Slurp a bowl for me!


Mister J July 4, 2008 at 3:35 am

Aside from blogging, you ought to consider “vlogging” that way we see addition video also of your “bad home cooking”


Stefania July 4, 2008 at 11:55 pm

Saw your post in the side bar on the BlogHer site. Anything to do with tortilla soup catches my eye. This sounds AMAZING. I’ve subscribed to your blog’s feed. Glad to have found you.


Seraphine July 5, 2008 at 11:12 am

Hot date indeed! I’d fall in love wiht anyone who brings over a six pack of beer and cooks me dinner. Don’t forget to send a thank you card.
I’ve never had tortilla soup. Maybe it’s my imagination, but wouldn’t the tortillas get soggy? *shrugs*


julie r July 6, 2008 at 1:35 am

The tortillas are fried so are quite crunchy but, if left to float for awhile, do get softer usually retaining a crunchy center….this really is an amazing soup!


Kat July 6, 2008 at 3:09 pm

I believe you!!! I recently made some awesome tomato soup…it’s so funny – – it’s the middle of summer and a lot of food bloggers are slaving away at hot soups! We are a special bunch, indeed.


Anita September 9, 2008 at 10:59 am

I came across your blog while looking for a sopa azteca recipe. It looks delicious! I have a question about the guajillo chiles-were they dried? If so, what were the in between steps to getting them into the soup?


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