When I was in college my mom sent me a DVD of a movie called Tortilla Soup, and to this day I still don’t really know why.
I was really into cooking even then, and I was taking a few culinary courses for my degree, but as far as I understand it my love of cooking was reason enough for Mom to think I’d LOVE a movie about soup. She’d apparently rented it, liked it, and since it was about cooking, thought I’d like it too. Rather than telling me to rent it for myself though, she bought a copy and mailed it to me.
I’d never heard of the film, and having lived a pretty culturally sheltered life, I’d never heard of the soup either. It took me a while to get around to actually watching it, and when I did I found it pretty unremarkable. I liked it okay, and I told mom so, but I never watched it again and today I have little memory of what it was even about (besides soup).
A few years ago, when I started my first recipe based pinterest board, I started seeing recipes pop up for this soup that I’d largely forgotten all about. Suddenly my interest in the soup (but not the film) was sparked anew. The only problem was that whenever I clicked on any of the recipes, most of them called for loads of canned ingredients and seasoning packets and other fun concoctions loaded with sodium. While the idea of the soup sounded good, the recipes I was seeing never looked good enough to bother.
Then, earlier this summer the siren song of New York’s Green Markets got the better of me and I suddenly found myself wanting to put sweet corn and tomatoes and peppers in everything. It seemed like the time was just right and I needed to finally make it happen. I searched the internets for tortilla soup FROM SCATCH (I don’t know why it never occurred to me to do this before) and finally found one that sounded great.
The first recipe I tried was overflowing with tons of vegetables and only called for one canned ingredient: crushed tomatoes. I know it’s tomato season right now but I really hate peeling them so I’ll save the fresh ones for tomato sandwiches and reach for the can when it comes to soups.
Anyway, this soup was absolutely delicious but the torn corn tortillas used for thickening didn’t break down enough for me and just seemed kind soggy and weird. I mentioned this to a friend who, unbeknownst to me, turned out to be a tortilla soup connoisseur. She told me that she’d recently learned the trick to making what was now her favorite “authentic” tortilla soup. I assumed this would be some time tested family recipe handed down through generations and just passed on to her by her great aunt, but when I asked for the recipe instead of a stained and faded recipe card she sent me an email with a link. A link to a recipe from ABC’s “The Chew”.
The main difference here is that rather than just tearing and tossing the tortillas in to the soup to break down and thicken, they’re ground up in a blender with some stock and onions. That would definitely solve the soggy tortilla chunk issue, and would probably make for a thicker soup, so I decided to give it a go. If it was good enough for my friend, it was good enough for me.
Rather than just using the recipe as is though, I decided to just steal the thickening technique and use it along with all the fresh veggies from my first recipe.
Oh boy oh boy. This recipe sure is a keeper. I definitely see why someone might want to make this in the slow cooker in the dead of winter using a bunch of canned goods and salt, but you’ll never beat how amazing this soup can be when made with super fresh ingredients in the height of summer. By the way, this is a perfect way to put some of your end-of-summer produce to good use.
The soup itself is rich, hearty, and loaded with fresh vegetables. The broth is thick and tomatoey, with just a touch of heat from the jalapeño. A squeeze of fresh lime juice and sprinkle of chopped cilantro really add a wonderful brightness to everything.
I know most people like to finish tortilla soup with grated cheese and sour cream, but I think a few slices of ripe creamy avocado are all that’s needed to make this soup feel rich and decadent. Of course, the crunch of a few crispy tortilla strips can’t hurt either.
Chicken Tortilla Soup
2 to 3 ears of sweet corn, kernels removed with a sharp knife
2 medium bell peppers, seeded and diced
3 stalks of celery, diced
4 carrots, sliced into thin disks
Salt and pepper
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 jalapenos, seeded and diced
2 teaspoons of ground cumin
1/2 cup of fresh cilantro, divided
9 to 10 corn tortillas, divided
6 cups of chicken stock
one 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
2 to 3 cups of pulled or cubed cooked chicken
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil a large heavy bottom stock pot or dutch oven. Add corn kernels, celery, carrot, and bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for about 10 minutes. or until vegetables are beginning to soften and get some color in the pan. Transfer to a bowl and set aside, scraping everything out of the pan.
Heat 2 more tablespoons of olive oil in the same pan and add onion, garlic, jalapeño, & cumin. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of cilantro leaves and sauté for 5 minutes more, or until onions are soft and translucent.
Scrape onion mixture into the pitcher of a powerful blender and add about 1 cup of chicken stock and 3 to 4 torn up corn tortillas (depending on how thick you want the soup). Purée the mixture until well blended and free of lumps. Transfer back to the pan and heat until it bubbles and just begins to thicken. Add crushed tomato, chicken stock, and cooked vegetables from before. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add cooked chicken and cook for 10 minutes more.
While soup simmers you can make your tortilla strips by slicing 6 remaining tortillas into strips and crisping in a cast iron skillet over high heat with 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir very frequently and try to promote even browning. Once well browned and crisp transfer to a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. Alternatively, you could just crunch up a few tortilla chips.
Serve the soup with a squeeze of fresh lime juice, a sprinkle of torn cilantro leaves, a few cubes or slices or avocado, and a few tortilla strips.