Tarascan bean soup

La primavera (Spring) has arrived in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Mornings are still a little chilly, but the days warm up quickly. Soon it will be too warm to think about a hot bowl of soup, but that time has not yet arrived.

This soup is inspired by Tarascan Bean and Tomato Soup, a hearty soup recipe in Diana Kennedy’s book, The Cuisines of Mexico. Mrs. Kennedy writes that the the recipe is from Michoacán, and named after the Tarascan Indians of that state. It looks easy enough to try. I’m all for easy these days. And how can you go wrong combining beans, chiles and tomatoes?

If you already have some cooked pinto beans and fresh tomatoes, Tarascan bean soup comes together fairly quickly. You could use canned tomatoes, but it’s worth taking the time to blister fresh tomatoes over a flame for that incomparable roasted flavor. It only takes minutes. And I hope you have a Mexican stocked fridge and pantry. Some dry chiles, corn tortillas, a cheese that melts, maybe some Mexican crema (but that’s not essential for this soup).

Pinto beans are rarely seen in central and southern Mexico. They are a staple of northern Mexico and the American southwest. After telling friends that pinto beans aren’t found in central Mexico (much to their surprise), I was presented with a bag when they next returned from north of the border. Thoughtful friends. Great soup.

Tarascan Bean Soup Serves 4-6

  • 3 1/2 cups cooked pinto beans, with bean broth
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 2 large plum tomatoes, grilled until the skin starts to blacken, or 1 cup canned cubed tomatoes
  • 2 cups (1/2 l.) chicken or vegetable broth
  • 6 corn tortillas, cut into 1.5″ by 1/4″ strips, fried until crisp
  • 6 pasilla chiles, cut into small strips and fried until crisp (see notes)
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) thick Mexican crema or thinned sour cream
  • 1/2 cup crumbled cotija cheese or cubed manchego cheese
  1. Puree the tomatoes, onion and garlic in a blender.
  2. In a large skillet or heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Add the tomato mixture and simmer for 5 minutes over high heat, stirring occasionally.
  3. Blend the beans with their broth until very smooth.
  4. Add the bean puree and oregano to the tomato mixture, and cook over medium heat for for 8 minutes, stirring frequently.
  5. Add chicken (or vegetable) broth, adjust for salt, and cook 10 minutes more, stirring every few minutes.
  6. Divide among bowls, and pass tortilla and chile strips, crema and cheese.

Notes ~

~ Diana Kennedy includes instructions for making Mexican style crema for those north of the border. Simply blend 1/2 pint heavy cream with two tablespoon of buttermilk in a glass jar, cover loosely, and allow to set out in a warm kitchen for six hours. Refrigerate overnight and it will thicken. For thin crema, use thin cream, not heavy. If you live in Mexico, crema will be as close as your nearest cremeria or tienda abbarotes. Buttermilk is not to be had for love or money in Mexico, to my knowledge. (If a recipe calls for buttermilk, thin plain yogurt. Or take the longer route: make butter from fresh cream. The liquid pressed out of the butter solids is real buttermilk.)

~ To fry chile strips, cut out the seeds and membrane of pasilla chiles, cut into small strips, and fry in a little vegetable oil for no longer than 15-20 seconds per side. Over-cooking will turn the chile bitter.

~ Pasilla chiles, the fried form of the chilaca chile, add a delightful, almost sweet flavor with very little heat.


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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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Caldo Tlalpeño

Years ago, when we lived outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, we would make the five and a half hour drive to Juarez, just across the Mexican border. It was a quick weekend trip for south of the border food, shopping and sights. One of the attractions was a restaurant whose name I no longer remember, but its bowl of Caldo Tlalpeño has kept its place in our gustatory memory bank. Its chile chipotle heat was the kind that could take the roof of your mouth off, but we had to order it every time. It was just that good.

Our Juarez shopping excursions were memorable, also. One of our favorite stores was run by FONART, a government agency to promote the sale of Mexican arts and crafts. FONART stands for Fondo Nacional para el Fomento de las Artesanías. (Thank goodness for acronyms.) The FONART store in Juarez was where we bought our first Huichol yarn art, craft of the indigenous people of Jalisco and Nayarit, and made by pressing colorful yarn onto a beeswax- and resin-coated board. Contemporary Huichol yarn art uses more subtle colors and intricate patterns, but we still enjoy the primitive design we purchased decades ago with the classic Huichol symbols of deer, corn and peyote.

Caldo Tlalpeño is named after the community of Tlalpan on the outskirts of Mexico City. Like all soups, there are many variations. With or without vegetables. With or without rice. Cheese or not. But chicken, avocado, garbanzo beans, and chipotle chile seem to be common denominators. Melted cheese in the bottom of the bowl adds richness.

You can start with poaching a chicken and using the broth, or use the breast meat from a Costco roast chicken with additional broth, as I did here. Either way, it’s a warming soup for a chilly day. If you are in Mexico, where chilly days may be few and far between, soup is good for the soul, regardless of the outside temperature.

For the U.S. readers, do you have a Mexican grocery store in your town, or a well stocked Mexican foods aisle at your grocery store? That’s where you would find canned chipotle chile en adobo, the smoked, dried jalapeños in a vinegary tomato sauce that scream five-alarm fire. But it is oh so good, that the heat is worth it. Use judiciously.

Caldo Tlalpeño serves 4

  • 2 cups (10 oz./283 g) cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-sized strips
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 cup cooked garbanzo beans
  • 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano, crushed
  • 1-2 tablespoon chipotle chile en adobo, finely minced, or to taste
  • 6 oz. (170 g.) manchego cheese, cut into small cubes
  • 1 large avocado, sliced
  • cilantro for garnish
  • salt to taste
  1. Bring chicken broth to a simmer and add rice, beans, chicken, oregano and chipotle chile. Return to simmer.
  2. Divide cheese among 4 bowls.
  3. Ladle soup over cheese.
  4. Garnish with avocado slices and chopped cilantro.
  5. Serve with hot tortillas and slices of lime.

Notes ~

~ Diana Kennedy adds green beans, carrot and tomato to her recipe in “The Cuisines of Mexico”, making it more of a vegetable soup, and probably more traditional. This version more closely resembles the caldo we had in Juarez.

~ Monterey Jack or mozzarella could be used instead of manchego cheese.

~ The Fort restaurant outside of Denver makes a similar Juarez version, giving it the whimsical name, Bowl of the Wife of Kit Carson. If you are in the Denver area, this restaurant is worth seeking out.


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Black Bean Soup

These have been hard times, these last few weeks. Writing up a recipe has seemed so trivial, when others are crying out. There is a heaviness that seems heavier than COVID-19 ever did. Minneapolis and the tragic death of George Floyd brought injustice into sharp relief. Things are not going to be the same again, but they shouldn’t be. There seems to be progress happening. One can only hope that America gets it right this time.

Life carries on, and we still eat. Comfort food sounds appealing now, and something easy to prepare sounds good, too. This simple black bean soup is satisfying, and true to Mexican seasoning. Curiously, we never see bean soup on menus here. Beef vegetable soup, chicken vegetable soup, and tortilla soup, but not bean soup, even though Diana Kennedy includes a few in her books. This recipe can be made with any bean you have. Here in our part of Mexico, black beans, creamy peruano, and azafran beans are common. But you could use white beans, pinto beans, even kidney beans.

I’m not on the recent sourdough bandwagon, but I have been making a whole wheat version of Jim Leahey’s no-knead bread, a good soup accompaniment. Its overnight rise gives depth to the flavor.

Black Bean Soup

  • 2 cups/450 grams/1 lb. dry black beans
  • 1/2 teaspoon plus 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon dry Mexican oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dry thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1-2 tablespoons sauce from canned chipotle chile en adobo
  1. For a quick soak of dry beans, cover beans with water in sauce pan, add 1/2 teaspoon salt, and boil for one minutes. Cover and let sit for 1 hour.
  2. Drain, cover with fresh water, add onion, garlic, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, and 2 teaspoons salt, and cook until tender, checking to maintain water level.
  3. When beans are tender, puree with immersion blender or standard blender until roughly smooth, not pureed. Add more water if needed to thin to soup consistency.
  4. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro and crema, Mexican sour cream.


~ If cooking dry beans seems daunting, use 4 15-oz. cans of cooked beans.

~ After years of cooking beans in an olla de barro, a clay bean pot, I switched to a pressure cooker. Using a clay pot is muy mexicana, but takes so much longer. The bean pots are now used to hold kitchen utensils.

~ Chipotle chiles are large, dried smoked jalapeños. They are commonly canned in adobo, a sauce of onion, vinegar and tomato.


Dashi Broth and Japanese Aid

The closest we came to Japan was several years ago when we had a lay-over in Tokyo while on our way to South Korea. As the plane approached the airport, I strained to see as much as I could out of the small window, knowing that view might be as much as I would ever see of Japan. The one image I remember best is the color green everywhere, before buildings and runways filled the window. In my mind’s eye, I saw temples, simple homes with paper screens and futons, tea houses. Now we watch the news from Japan with heavy hearts.

We spent five weeks in South Korea, traveling the length of the country, while visiting restored Buddhist temples, world-class botanical gardens, huge markets with an array of exotic foods and crafts, and always, always, eating. Russ and I told each other that we could easily live off of Korean food alone, with its reliance on simply prepared vegetables, a minimum of meat, some fish, burning chile sauce, and light soups.

My Asian cooking is not extensive, usually a generic stir-fry. When I lived in the U.S., where Asian ingredients are easier to find than they are in Mexico, I would sometimes make dashi (だし), a simple broth made of kombu seaweed and bonito fish flakes. This broth is the basis for Japanese miso and noodle soups. Western chefs use it to season vegetables and other dishes. I enjoy it on its own as a mug of hot, savory broth.

As a way of paying homage to the people of Japan, I am making dashi today and wishing the good people of Japan safety and renewal. I know they need more than our good wishes, so we also made a donation to the American Red Cross. If you wish to do the same, contact information follows this recipe.


  • 4 cups (1 liter) water
  • 7″ (17.8 cm.) piece of kombu
  • 1/2 cup (2 oz./5 grams) bonito fish flakes
  1. Add kombu and water to a pot.
  2. Heat water over medium heat. Just before it reaches a boil, remove kombu.
  3. Bring water to a boil and add fish flakes.
  4. Turn off heat and allow fish flakes to seep for 2 minutes.
  5. Strain broth, discarding fish flakes. Refrigerate or freeze.

For a simple soup, simmer julienned carrots and cubes of tofu in dashi until heated through. Season with miso or tamari and top with cilantro and sliced green onion for garnish.


  • For a tastier dashi, first soak kombu in four cups cold water for one hour, then continue with cooking instruction, using the soaking water.
  • Bonito fish flakes are made by steaming and drying bonito, a type of mackerel, until it is bone-dry, and then it into flakes. Kombu is a seaweed from the kelp family. Kelp dashi is the taste responsible for the identification of umami, a Japanese word which indicates the fifth taste of savory, in addition to the four tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
  • Making dashi from scratch, as easy as it is, has become uncommon in Japan, as instant dashi powder is now widely used.
  • If you wish to support Japan earthquake and tsunami relief efforts, donations can be made to the American Red Cross. Or text “REDCROSS” to 90999 to donate $10 USD. For those outside of the US who wish to donate here is a directory of international Red Cross centers.

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