Don't shun soup in the summertime

This tortilla soup is accompanied by salsa, jalapeno, cilantro and queso fresca. BY JACK CLEMONS
June 18, 2012

Last week I was hungry for soup at lunchtime and pulled out a tortilla soup mix that had been lurking in the cupboard for months. The colorful cardboard box was covered with encouraging words like “authentic style” and “Mexican recipe.” Preparation instructions offered three different options: basic, chicken and enough-for-a-party. I opted to add chicken, since we had some leftover pieces of cooked white meat in the refrigerator.

I don’t usually turn to prepared foods because of all the unpronounceable ingredients and preservatives, but the clever fonts and photos turned my head. I had in mind the broth-based tortilla soup we’d savored on a trip to Acapulco - rich, ruddy broth studded with chunks of chicken, roasted tomatoes and onions with smoky heat from chipotle, bright bite of jalapeno and corn crunch from the tortilla garnish.

By way of background, the word tortilla comes from the Latin root torta for round cake and can be translated from the Spanish as little tart. Made from ground cornmeal flour (masa), the dough is pressed into a flat, thin circle and used to hold a variety of ingredients. The tortilla has been a staple of Mexican and Spanish cuisine since the time of the Aztecs; it became a familiar food in the United States as the popularity of Tex-Mex grew during the 1970s and ‘80s. Now there are dozens of commercial varieties of flat tortillas and chips available, or you can purchase a basic tortilla press and make your own.

Although the tasters around our lunch table enjoyed the soup mix results, the color and texture were completely unexpected. Not only was there no broth visible in the soup, it was full of melted cheese and thick enough to hold up a spoon. After a little research, I realized why. Classic tortilla soup from Mexico is made the way it was served the first time we’d tried it. Once the dish crossed the border into California and Texas, other ingredients were added to create a thick, creamy soup: ground tortillas and queso fresca.

This difference in the density of the two types of tortilla soups reminded me of a note I recently received from Scott Aijo. He mentioned he’d been bored one afternoon and started assembling a pot of chowder with the ingredients he could find on hand. Instead of overly thick New England-style chowder, his version is lighter in texture yet still rich in flavor. A handful of quartered potatoes adds body to the broth and cream mixture; mushrooms and ham contribute earthiness, while the carrots and peas bring in the tastes of an early spring garden.

In both examples, you can see how much a dish changes by substituting (or omitting) ingredients.

Although I prefer the broth base of the classic tortilla soup, you could thicken its texture without adding ground tortillas: puree the soup with an immersion blender. In Scott’s chowder you can deepen the flavor profile (and add a few calories) by substituting cooked slab bacon for the ham. If you’re not fond of peas, try his recipe with golden corn kernels instead.

And, for my final piece of advice, avoid prepared soup mixes (now matter how tempting), especially when you can easily create a delicious bowl of soup with the fresh ingredients you already have in your kitchen.

Classic Tortilla Soup
1 T olive oil
1/2 Vidalia onion, diced
1 minced garlic clove
1 C chopped chicken breast*
1 chipotle pepper, minced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
1 t minced jalapeno
1/2 t salt
1/2 t chili powder
1/8 t red pepper flakes
2 C chicken broth
1 C diced roasted tomatoes
Juice of 1 lime
2 corn tortillas
chopped fresh cilantro

Preheat oven to 375 F. Heat olive oil in a soup pot over medium. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic, chipotle and chicken; cook until chicken is no longer raw. Stir in bell pepper, jalapeno, salt, chili powder and red pepper flakes; cook, stirring often, for about 3 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the broth, then add tomatoes and lime juice. Simmer to combine flavors, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cut tortillas into 1/4-inch-thick strips and place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Moisten with nonstick cooking spray and bake until brown and crisp, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve soup hot, garnished with crisped tortilla strips and cilantro. Yield: 4 servings. *Note, if using cooked chicken, add it at the end of the simmer; shred it if desired.

Tortilla Soup
4 tortillas
1 T canola oil
3/4 C minced onion
1 pressed garlic clove
3/4 C diced tomato
1 T chopped cilantro
1 1/2 t chili powder
1 t cumin
5 C chicken broth
1/2 cooked chicken breast
diced avocado for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F. Slice the tortillas into 1/4-inch strips and place on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake for 15 minutes. Set aside about 20 strips for garnish; crush the remainder in a food processor. Heat oil in a soup pot and add onion; cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato; cook another 3 minutes. Stir in the spices and cook another 3 minutes. Pour in the broth and crushed tortillas; simmer for about 25 minutes. Remove the soup from heat and puree with an immersion blender. Shred the chicken and stir into soup; return to heat and cook for about 5 minutes. Ladle into bowls and serve garnished with avocado. Yield: 6 servings.

Scott’s Chowder
1 t butter
8 sliced mushrooms
1 diced onion
8 oz diced ham
32 oz chicken broth
3 sliced carrots
4 new potatoes, quartered
2 cups half and half
1 C peas
2 1/2 T flour
2 1/2 T butter
salt and pepper, to taste
Parsley as garnish

In a skillet over medium heat, combine the butter, onions, mushrooms and ham. Sauté until vegetables are softened and ham is starting to crisp; set aside. Pour the chicken stock into a soup pot and bring to a gentle boil. Stir in carrots and potatoes; cover and simmer until carrots are soft, about 20 minutes. Uncover, add the half and half and bring just to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and add peas; stir in reserved onions, mushrooms and ham. While soup simmers, melt butter in a small skillet and stir in flour to make a roux; do not brown. Add by spoonfuls to the soup pot, stirring until incorporated; simmer an additional 5 minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve garnished with parsley. Yield: 6 servings.