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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Salsa Roja — Salsas de Chile Ancho y Chile Guajillo, and a Question of Color

Salsa Roja is a classic Mexican salsa. Spooned over enchiladas, eggs, tacos — over anything where you want to see a blaze of color, and it adds a rich, complex flavor of chile. The upper left salsa is made with chile ancho, the lower right with chile guajillo, both dried chiles. In Mexico, the smallest mom and pop grocery stores to the largest supermercados carry these two common chiles, as well as many others. North of the border, you can find them on the Mexican aisle in grocery stores. If they are unavailable, look for dried New Mexico red chiles. They make a wonderful salsa.

Once you taste these salsas, and if you have an imaginative palate, maybe you will taste the flavors described in Mark Miller’s The Great Chile Book (Ten Speed Press), which describes ancho, the dried form of the fresh, green poblano chile, as having qualities of “a mild fruit flavor with tones of coffee, licorice, tobacco, dried plum and raisin, with a little woodsiness.” Guajillo is described as tasting of “green tea and stemmy flavor with berry tones. A little piney and tannic …”.

I can’t say I taste each of these flavors. I can say their unique complexity of flavors makes anything they accompany much better and richer.

Salsas made from dried chiles are so easy, I can see why Mexican housewives whip these together in a matter of minutes, sometimes for every meal. I have read that salsa in Mexico is compared to the use of ketchup north of the border. If I were Mexican, I would take umbrage at this comparison. There is no comparison.

Upper right, ancho chiles; lower left, guajillo chiles

When we visited our friends Capi and Cuka in the mountains near Mascota in the state of Jalisco (that most Mexican of Mexico’s states), I watched Cuka make salsa for a lunch of Gringa Tacos. I took notes, but I knew better than to ask her for measurements. She would have looked incredulous and shrugged her shoulders. These two salsas are made as she made them. The measurements are mine, but feel free to vary the amounts to suit your own taste.

About the question of color. Those of you with wide screens will see a band of reddish color on either side of this page. What color to select, if any, has caused me no end of angst. I’m lousy at selecting paint colors for our house. Selecting this color for Cooking in Mexico was no easier for me. I settled on a color that came close to the color of dried chiles and the color of our handmade terracotta floor tiles. But you, the reader, have never before read why I picked this color, and by itself, without that association, some of you may wonder if I was out of my mind by selecting what I call “Terracotta.” Was I? What do you think? Please tell me. Please tell me if your screen is even wide enough to see a color on the side. I may be getting worked up over nothing. If you can see it, is it OK? Does it compliment the food photos or detract? Is it enticing, or would a new reader take one look at it and be chased away? Would you rather see another color? Or no color? I await your comments and answers.*

Meantime, here is this easy, classic, wonderful chile salsa recipe that I like to call Terracotta Salsa. Use whichever dried chile you find. Other dried chiles will make great salsas, as well. Avoid dried chipotle unless you like true fire.

Salsa de Chile Ancho or de Chile Guajillo

  • 4-8 dried chiles (depending on size of chiles), ancho or guajillo (or New Mexico red)
  • large pinch of salt
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
  • about 1/4 small onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 small tomato or a few tomatillos, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml.) to 1 cup (240 ml.) hot water

Wipe chiles clean. Briefly toast in an un-oiled, heavy skillet over medium-low heat about 30 seconds per side, being careful not to scorch. If they scorch, throw them out and start again, as they will take on an unpleasant, bitter flavor. When cool enough to handle, remove stem, stringy veins and some or most of the seeds. If you like your salsa on the hot side, leave seeds in.

Put chiles and other ingredients, except water, in a blender and process until everything is roughly chopped. Don’t worry if there are still large pieces of chile. Add 1/2 cup of hot water and process until smooth, adding more water if necessary for a spoonable consistency. The salsa should not be so smooth that there are no pieces of chile. This salsa benefits from texture.

Heat skillet with about a tablespoon of mild vegetable oil — I used avocado oil. Add salsa to skillet when oil is hot. It should spit and bubble. Stand back and stir to calm the salsa. Simmer for about three minutes. Adjust salt to taste. May be refrigerated for a few days.

Russ took one look at the salsas and added both to his Cuban Longaniza sausage on a bolillo. More on this wonderful sausage from Carnes del Mundo in the near future.

The salsa colors are brilliant. I’m not so sure about the page color on the sides. I look forward to your verdict.

*Postscript: In September I changed to a different layout, one that does not offer background colors, so this question of color became a moot point. Thank you to everyone who offered their opinion. I hope you enjoy the new blog design.


When selecting dried chiles, look for those that have a bright color, are still somewhat flexible and have a good aroma. Discard any with insect damage.

Chile ancho is also known as chile tener in the Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco. This name was given to me when I participated in making tamales in Nayarit.

In From My Mexican Kitchen, Diana Kennedy includes a recipe for salsa de chile costeño, the ingredients of which are only chiles, garlic, salt and water. She describes this salsa as having an acquired taste, but being a favorite of hers. Her recipe shows how simple it is to make any salsa with dried chiles: a slight toasting, then processed in a blender, adding enough water for consistency, and salt to taste. Onion, tomatoes, tomatillos, and oregano are optional.


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