Tortilla soup

As we see the icy images on television of the fierce storms sweeping the US and read of record cold (in Texas of all places!) we’re grateful for our relative warmth in Mexico. Winter still happens here, especially at our elevation of 4,600′ (1402 m). The grass was rimmed with frost this morning, but the morning sky is already brilliant blue. Chilly days call for steaming hot soup, and tortilla soup will warm soul and body on the coldest of days.

In the valley below, tomatoes, chiles and cucumbers are being harvested. Yes, winter is harvest time, and we have a friend, Profesor Pauli, who grows organic tomatoes. Ziploc bags of chopped tomato fill the freezer, enough to keep us supplied until next year’s harvest.

This soup is basically an extremely savory tomato broth with lots of toppings. Slices of avocado, strips of crisp fried tortilla and chile, queso cotija, crema mexicana, and optional chicken pieces, if you wish to make it heartier.

With two chiles — chile pasilla pureed in the broth and chile ancho strips as a topping — you might think tortilla soup would be muy picante. Not at all. These are mild chiles. Chile pasilla literally means “little raisin”, maybe because of its color. Mark Miller, in “The Great Chile Book”, describes the pasilla as tasting of berry, grape, and herbaceous tones with a hint of licorice.

The ancho chile is the queen of chiles in my kitchen. Ground or whole, I can’t get enough of it in soups, chocolate desserts and salsas, even in coffee and hot chocolate. The Great Chile Book describes it as “having a mild fruit flavor with tones of coffee, licorice, tobacco, dried plum and raisin, with a little woodsiness”. My hat is off to Mark if he can detect all those tastes. I can’t say that I can, but that’s probably due to my unimaginative palate. The chiles taste and smell exquisite, despite my lack of original descriptive adjectives.

Traditionally, tortilla soup is not served with chicken, but as with all recipes, creativity is the extra salt that seasons a dish like nothing else. In other words, add whatever you fancy — corn, potato, tofu, shrimp. It may no longer be a traditional tortilla soup, but the broth is so good, it will still be delicious, a customized bowl of soup. I didn’t have an avocado to use for leftovers the next day, so cilantro gave the bowls a touch of green.

Most likely, there are thousands of pots of soup being made today north of the border. For those still under winter’s cold spell, I wish I could deliver bowls of piping hot tortilla soup. Since that isn’t possible, here’s the next best thing, a recipe for one of the most warming, flavorful soups of Mexico. I’m hoping your casa has power and water, that you and yours are warm and dry, and that you are able to enjoy a hot bowl of soup. Provecho!

Tortilla soup 4 servings

  • 4 corn tortillas, preferably a day old
  • 4 ancho chiles
  • 1/4 cup (59 ml) neutral tasting oil
  • 2 cups (14 oz/400 g) chopped Roma (plum) tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup (59 ml) chopped onion
  • 2 large cloves minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 2 pasilla chiles, seeds, membranes and stems removed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 cups (1185 ml) chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups cubed, cooked chicken, well heated (optional)
  • 2 avocados, cubed
  • 1/2 cup (59 ml) crema mexicana, or sour cream
  • 1/2 cup queso cotija or queso fresco, crumbled
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges
  1. Stack and cut tortillas into small strips, about 1 1/4″ x 1/4″ (31.75 mm x 6.35 mm). Fry in hot oil in batches in a skillet until crisp. Drain on a paper towel.
  2. Slit open ancho chiles, remove stems, seeds and membanes. Cut into small strips, 1 1/4″ x 1/4″. Fry in hot oil in batches until starting to blister, 10 – 15 seconds per side. Drain on a paper towel.
  3. Puree tomato, onion, garlic, pasilla chile and oregano until very smooth.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add tomato mixture and cook until bubbling. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste.
  6. Divide hot chicken pieces, if using, among 4 bowls. Ladle broth over chicken. Top with avocado, tortilla and chile strips, crumbled cheese and a spoonful of crema mexicana. Serve immediately with wedges of lime.

Notes ~

~ Leftover tortilla soup is deliciosa, but be forewarned that the pasilla chiles have had time to steep their heat into the broth. Más picante, but still so good. We emptied our bowls too soon.

~ Guajillo chiles can be substituted for the chile ancho. North of the border, look for dried chiles online, or in Mexican or import grocery stores.

~ For a vegetarian version, substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth.

~ This is an anniversary of sorts, the 200th post for Cooking in Mexico. This post also has another distinction. While I was combining recipe, photos and text, the nuts and bolts of blogging, Russ was on the kitchen floor attempting to get the dishwasher doing its thing again. I would be in the process of inserting a photo, and he would ask for a wrench. Then I would start to rewrite a sentence, and he wanted a rag or screwdriver. I finally finished the post for tortilla soup, but he’s still working on the dishwasher. Russ has the harder chore today. He’s my fix-it guy par excellence. He’ll get it done. Or we’ll get a new dishwasher.

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Seven layer bean dip

The Super Bowl deserves something above and beyond the usual guacamole and salsa. Don’t get me wrong. Well prepared, these two standards are always welcome. But since Russ has been looking forward to this game all year (five weeks), something out of the ordinary would be nice. Despite all the typical Mexican elements, Seven Layer Bean Dip is not from Mexico, originating in Texas with one of its first print appearances in Family Circle magazine in 1981. Always called Seven Layer Bean Dip, it turns out that the seventh layer is loosely defined and usually whatever you wish to use as a garnish. Some recipes add cooked ground beef and call that the seventh layer. A garnish of chopped cilantro and red onion works for me. To be honest, it’s more like a six and a half layer dip.

In our part of Mexico, it’s tomato and avocado season. We have a bounty of locally grown, organic tomatoes and avocados. The tomatoes are going into the freezer, and were eating guacamole almost every day to keep up with the rapidly ripening supply. I’ve never frozen tomatoes before, but it sounds easy. Pop into zip-lock bags, and they’re good for a year.

I have a bone to pick with most recipes that give the preparation time as 20 minutes, 30 minutes, when you know darn well it’s going to take at least an hour. Recipes are able to do this is by listing the ingredients as how they are to be prepared. Minced, chopped, peeled, refried, grated. One of the most popular recipes online states preparation time for Seven Layer Dip as 20 minutes. One look at that, and you can be assured that the clock starts once every ingredient is prepped according to the recipe list. But I don’t buy grated cheese, minced onion, sliced olives. Some of you may buy canned refried beans or salsa in a jar. But you have the option, if you have the time, of doing everything from scratch, and ending up with the freshest flavors.

Seven Layer Bean Dip serves 6-8

  • 2.5 cups (16 oz/453 g) refried black beans
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin (comino)
  • 4 ounces (113 g) grated cheese (I use half sharp cheddar and half manchego)
  • 1 cup (4 oz/113 g) sliced black or Greek olives
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 2 serrano or jalapeño chiles
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (237 ml) salsa fresca
  • 3/4 cup (6.5 oz./184 g) sour cream
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • Tostadas or tortilla chips
  1. Heat refried beans until starting to bubble. Stir in cumin. Salt to taste.
  2. Grate cheese and set aside.
  3. Slice olives and set aside.
  4. Make a simple guacamole by blending mashed avocado, minced serrano or jalapeño chiles, lime juice and salt.
  5. Make salsa or open your jar.
  6. In a shallow dish (I used a glass 9″/22.86 cm pie plate) spread hot beans. Cover with grated cheese, then sliced olives, guacamole, salsa, sour cream and finally, garnish with chopped cilantro and red onion.
  7. Serve with sturdy tortilla chips.

© 2009-2021 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

All photos and text are copyright protected. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.