What I love about ethnic cooking is that everybody seems to think their personal recipe is the authentic one. I learned to love this soup when I lived in Mexico City and we traveled to Cuernavaca on an occasional weekend. Of course, I consider my recipe below the ultimate one.
Tortilla soup is truly a delicacy when properly prepared. Leave out even one of the ingredients, however, and you will be disappointed. In other words, don’t bother to prepare this unless you are willing to search for everything needed.
During summer when the tomatoes are so ripe and tasty, use fresh tomatoes. If tomatoes are not in season, I would actually use a high quality canned tomato and it will taste better than if you used flavorless winter tomatoes.
Ingredients for Soup:
12 cups low sodium chicken broth (You can use a vegetable broth for vegetarians.)
2 to 3 Tablespoons of Knorr Suiza chicken boullion powder (or vegetable broth powder)
6 to 10 medium, very ripe tomatoes (about two pounds)
(If tomatoes are not in season, add a tablespoon of sugar.)
1 medium sweet or red onion, coarsely chopped
2 heaping teaspoons of fresh or roasted minced garlic
2 to 3 four inch sprigs of epazote - a pungent Mexican herb.
Condiments: Full list below with prep needed
Epazote's Latin name, by the way, is Chenopodium Amborsiodes. The herb is used to add fuller flavor to soups, bean, corn and fish dishes and grows like a weed in Mexico. It is particularly popular in bean dishes as it also helps prevent gas. If you decide to grow epazote, it is an annual but behaves as a perennial where winters are mild. I grow it in pots as it likes root crowding. Seeds are miniature but can be collected each year for the next year. Do not substitute this herb with another and don’t overuse this either as it could be toxic in large doses. Yes, you can omit this herb if it is not available in your area.
This is a labor intensive recipe because there are so many little steps, but the end product is worth it. I generally prepare the condiments while the soup broth is cooking. Below are the condiment ingredients and the preparation steps necessary.
Ingredients & Instructions for Condiments to be served with soup:
3 dried chiles pasillas (ALSO known as Ancho chiles) Remove the inside seeds and veins from the chiles. Fry them in olive oil (or a combination of 1/3 peanut and 2/3 olive oil) until they reconstitute and then become crisp and almost all black. Remove them from the heat and drain on paper towels. When they have cooled, place them inside a plastic bag and crush them into small flakes. Doing this inside the bag will keep your hands and fingernails from becoming stained. The chiles are not the hot chiles, by the way, but very mild, earthy chiles more along the lines of Hungarian Paprika chiles.
16 corn tortillas Let them sit out in the air for two hours if they are fresh then slice them into chip size, or about ½ inch wide x 3 inches long. Fry them in small batches until they are hardened and even somewhat crispy. Place on paper towels to drain and set aside.
12 - 16 TB. Cotija Mexican cheese, grated - Queso Chihuahua, Manchego or cheddar may be substituted, but it won’t be as good. All Safeway markets can order the Cotija for you and have it within a few days. It is a fresh, dry, white cheese that grates into a sort of powder.
3 large, ripe avocados - Do not peel or cut the avocados into thin slices until just before the soup is to be served. If you want to keep them from discoloring, you can also squirt them with lime juice but that will only last a few minutes.
¼ c. de-stemmed, chopped or whole cilantro leaves - The leaves can be left whole, but stems must definitely be removed.
3 to 4 ripe limes, each cut into eighths
Lard, peanut or olive oil (preferred) for frying chiles and chips separately - Lard is the most authentic flavor, but I use a mild olive oil, or a combination of 2/3 olive and 1/3 peanut oil.
Blender or Food Processor
A large saucepan
A frying pan
A broiling pan
A baking pan
Directions for Soup:
The secret of this soup is to realize that some good things take time. Put the chicken broth in a pan and start simmering it on a low heat.
Preheat the broiler and then broil the tomatoes on a broiling pan for a few minutes until you notice the skins are turning black on top. Turn them over and let them blacken on the back side too. Some cooks remove the skins while others leave them on. It is a matter of taste. I remove the majority of the skins for a better texture and I also remove all the seeds, but I like a little of the burnt skin for flavor.
Place the tomatoes in a blender along with the chopped onion and minced garlic. Blend until this becomes a smooth sauce, making sure that any remaining tomato skins are pulverized. Heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of the lard (or oil) in a deep frying pan and cook the tomato sauce over a medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until you notice that the color has darkened and the sauce has reduced somewhat.
Add this sauce to the broth, bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to simmer while you finish preparing the condiments. Put the tortilla chips into a preheated oven around 200, and they will stay warm. Just before serving throw the epazote sprigs in the broth for two minutes. Remove and discard the epazote after it wilts. It is a strong herb and adds an earthy, rustic flavor to the soup that is wonderful.
Some cooks add the tortilla strips to the broth for the last three minutes of cooking, but I don’t like them mushy so I don't. I always bake them for a few minutes (as described above) so that they retain their texture when dropped into the soup.
Serving the Soup:
Serve the soup broth while it is very hot along with all the condiments. Everyone adds a few tablespoons of tortilla chips and whatever quantities they like of cheese, a tablespoon of crumbled (mild) chilies, a few cilantro leaves, two or three slices of avocado and a final squeeze or three of lime juice.
Obviously if someone doesn’t like one of the ingredients - such as cilantro - they don’t need to add it to the soup. For fussy eaters, the control factor is a pleaser as they are actually ‘making’ their own soup. Children are particularly appreciative and generally throw in chips and avocado and nothing else.
This soup is so filling and satisfying, I would suggest you serve it with something plain and light. A cheese quesadilla on a flour tortilla makes it a vegetarian meal or serve it with rotisserie chicken and a salad. If you want a more substantial meal, serve only a cup of the soup and it will be a wonderful precursor to a dish like carne asada (Mexican style, grilled steak) along with red Mexican rice and black beans al charro. This soup recipe will serve 8 to 10 generously. Enjoy!