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.

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Caesar salad

After all the calorie excess of the holidays, it’s nice to get back to our regular eating. More soups. More salads. Less baked goods and sugar. Caesar salad is substantial enough that a large dish became dinner the other night. Sooner or later, probably sooner, I’ll return to baking (David Lebovitz’ Bostock sure looks tempting), but for now I need to get the waistine of my jeans fitting comfortably again.

Many think of Caesar salad as an American invention. It could be called an Italian-Mexican-American invention. Alex Cardini Sr. and his brother Caesar Cardini immigrated from Italy to the U.S, where Caesar opened restaurants, and eventually was joined by Alex at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Caesar created his salad dressing, and Alex added romaine lettuce, croutons, and garlic. At one point, it was called Aviator’s Salad to honor American military pilots. Depending on different accounts, Caesar salad, may or may not have included anchovies and Dijon mustard.

My version does not include Dijon mustard, as I’m more or less hewing to Diana Kennedy’s recipe in her book, Mexican Regional Cooking. She is one of the few people who can say this salad was prepared for her tableside by Alex Sr., so I am willing to wager her recipe is as close as can be to the original. My version comes very close to hers, but I’m using anchovy paste instead of anchovy fillets, and queso cotija, a dry, salty Mexican cheese, instead of Parmesan cheese, as both are not to be found in Mascota. I hope you have Parmesan and anchovy fillets, but if not, adopt the covid quarantine practice of using what you have on hand. Substitution is the mother of invention, or at least one of the mothers.

Caesar Salad Serves 4

  • 2 cups 1/2″ bread cubes (see note below)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 6 anchovy fillets or 2 tablespoons anchovy paste
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
  • 1/4 cup (3/4 oz/21 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese or 3 tablespoons crumbled queso cotija
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove garlic (see note below)
  • salt and ground pepper to taste
  • 12 ounces (340 g) torn romaine lettuce leaves, washed and crisped in refrigerator
  1. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a hot skillet, toss in bread cubes, and toast over medium heat, tossing every few minutes, until the exterior is crunchy but the cubes are still slightly soft inside. This will take 5 to 15 minutes, depending on how moist the bread is.
  2. Make dressing by whisking 2 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, minced anchovy fillets (or anchovy paste), and Worcestershire sauce.
  3. Coddle egg by immersing in boiling water for 1 minutes. Break egg into dressing and whisk.
  4. Toss dressing with romaine lettuce, croutons and half of cheese. Top with remaining cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Divide among 4 plates and serve.

Notes ~

  1. French bread is traditional for Caesar Salad croutons, but being the nontraditionalist that I am, I used Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead bread, half white, half wheat. It made supurb croutons.
  2. Croutons are usually toasted in the oven. Save time and fuel by toasting on the stovetop.
  3. Recipes vary consideraly on the amount of garlic called for. I found one clove was enough. Two cloves, and we were exhaling garlic fumes. But Caesar salad is known for being garlic-heavy, so use more if you have no plans to socialize, and who is these days?
  4. You are the best judge as to whether or not you want to use a raw egg in the dressing. An egg coddled for one minute is as good as raw, but it sure makes a rich dressing.

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Rosca de Reyes

Tomorrow, January 6, is the day when the three kings, the wise men of the Christmas story, will bring gifts to the good little girls and boys in Mexico. This is Epipany, called Dia de los Santos Reyes on my Mexican calendar, and it is the offical end of the Mexican Christmas holidays. A sweet, decorated bread, the Rosca de Reyes, the (bread) ring of the kings is served to all, whether you have been good or bad.

This bread has a muñeca, a little ceramic doll, tucked into it to represent the baby Jesus. Whoever finds it in their slice is obligated to serve tamales to guests on Dia de la Candelaria, February 2. Because this can be an expensive meal (two tamales per person, at least, for twenty to thirty or more people), sometimes the one with the muñeca conceals it in their mouth and doesn’t own up. For this reason two or three muñecas may be in one bread, with the hope that at least one person will annouce they are the lucky one who will host the tamale dinner.

Most people in Mexico buy their Rosca de Reyes from a panederia (bakery) or supermercado. If you have a baking inclination, here are two recipes from past years. Rosca de Reyes are yeast breads decorated with ate, a dried fruit paste, and formed into a ring. This recipe is a classic Rosca de Reyes from 2010. My favorite, from 2011, Mini Rosca de Reyes with Frangipani, is a bit more work with homemade almond paste, though you could use store-bought. Either way, be sure to slip in a muñeco, or use a shelled almond as a stand-in as I did.

Leftovers toast well, and also make great French toast, maybe my favorite way to eat Rosca de Reyes. And now that the holidays are over, it’s time to take down the agave flower Christmas “tree”. And start eating salads.

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Chocolate prune cake

Childhood memories of Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bars from the years we lived in England come to mind now and then. Pastelerias (cake shops) in Mexico make very tempting, creative cakes, evidence of European immigrant and foreign government influence. What about a chocolate cake that takes its inspiration from Cadbury’s raisins and almonds? Am I starting a new thing? No. Recipes for Cadbury cakes are all over the internet, mostly from the U.K. Every time I think I might have come up with a new recipe, I find it’s been on the internet for years. Oh well, here’s a very different chocolate cake from this immigrant, me. It’s made moist with prune puree, filled with almonds and raisins, and special enough that it will be our New Year’s Eve dessert and see us into 2021.

Prune puree works some kind of culinary magic, so that less fat and sugar still produce plenty of sweetness and tenderness. Only 1/4 cup of sugar is used, and 1/4 cup coconut oil or butter. Coconut oil seems to work its own chemistry, making for more tender cakes.

At the risk of sounding like a commercial for Costco, bakers south of the border can get very good Kirkland brand almendras (almonds), ciruelas secas (prunes), and chispas de chocolate (chocolate chips). But don’t go to Costco for pasas (raisins). Mexico’s markets and little stores have the best, tinted with reds and purples, and two to three times larger than raisins north of the border. They taste sweeter, too, but maybe that’s due to my own enthusiasm for these colorful morsels. In Mexico, you can find them in generically labeled bags or in bulk.

Our New Year’s Eve menu is yet to be planned. Maybe French onion soup with a cheese souffle. No tamales or atole tomorrow night, you ask? Well, when Emperor Maximilian thought he could rule Mexico, his plans failed, but the wonderful cuisine of France stayed. I don’t think we’ll be the only ones in Mexico enjoying French dishes tomorrow night. Bon appetit! I mean, Buen provecho!

The Chocolate Prune Cake is already baked, and because it’s extra moist, it will still be fresh and tender tomorrow evening. That is, if we don’t eat it all by then. You may notice there remained five pieces for the photo above. Will I ever learn to take photos, then eat?

For New Year’s Eve, Russ and I will be staying home with our pup, Yolo, enjoying each other’s company, maybe a movie, and definitely good food. May you enjoy the same. Feliz Año Nuevo!

Chocolate Prune Cake ~ 9 – 12 servings

  • 1.5 cups (10.6 oz/300 g) pitted prunes
  • 1 cup (6.7 oz/190 g) chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate, divided
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) melted coconut oil or butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup (4.5 oz/125 g) whole wheat pastry flour or regular whole wheat flour (for gluten free, see notes below)
  • 1/2 cup (1.65 oz/48 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 cup (1.75 oz/50 g) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (3 oz/85 g) almonds, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup (2.25 oz/63 g) raisins
  • Confectioner’s sugar to dust on cake (optional)
  1. Cut parchment paper to fit bottom of 8″ or 9″ baking pan. Grease and flour sides of pan.
  2. Simmer prunes in 1.5 cups (355 ml) water for 10 minutes, or until prunes are very tender. (See note below.)
  3. Puree undrained prunes, while still very warm, in food processor with 1/2 cup chocolate chips, eggs, oil and vanilla.
  4. Preheat oven to 350° F (180° C).
  5. Sift dry ingredients into large bowl.
  6. Stir prune mixture into dry ingredients with remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips, almonds and raisins.
  7. Pour into prepared baking pan and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until toothpick tests mostly dry. This is a very moist cake, so some crumbs will stick to toothpick when cake is done.
  8. Cook in pan for 5 minues.
  9. Run a thin knife around inside edges and invert onto cake rack to cool.

~ Notes

~ Prunes from Costco are very moist, almost wet. But if your prunes are the drier variety, use 1 3/4 cups of water to simmer prunes.

~ Pastry flour, with its lower gluten content, is preferred for tender cakes, but not available in Mexico unless you have a large supermarket that carries Bob’s Red Mill products. Most of us in Mexico will have to make do with regular flour, whole wheat or white.

~ For a gluten free cake, replace the wheat flour with Bob’s Red Mill 1 – 1 Baking Flour. According to Bob’s website, this flour can replace regular flour with an equal amount of Bob’s Red Mill 1 – 1 flour, cup per cup. I have not tried this, but it has very good reviews on Amazon.

© 2009-2020 COOKING IN MEXICO ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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