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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Corn tortillas, old world and new

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We were in the state of San Luis Potosí some years back, in the very small town of La Plazuela, when we came across the tortilleria — the shop that makes fresh corn tortillas. Every Mexican town has at least one tortilleria, but this one was special. The tortillas were being made from freshly ground, dried corn, instead of packaged Maseca, the corn flour usually used. We watched the grinding process, and waited around for the hot tortillas. Ay caramba, were they good! I don’t think we have had tortillas made from corn kernels ground on site since.

Amadeo, a resident of La Plazuela, ate egg tacos every morning made with these tortillas. He was a poor man, and when I saw his breakfast, I realized there wasn’t more than a small smear of cooked egg in each taco, essentially tortillas flavored with a bit of egg. His large meal of the day was tortillas with beans, and he told us that he was lucky he liked beans and tortillas so much, since that was the food God gave the poor of Mexico.

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Corn tortillas date back to pre-Columbian times, and still figure prominently in traditional Mexican cuisine. Then as now, the corn kernels are first soaked in an alkaline solution of lime (known as cal in Mexico) and water. This softens the outer skin, which is then rubbed off by hand. This process is known as nixtamalization. If you buy a bag of Maseca in Mexico, that is what the word nixtamalizado on the package means.

Despite the growing popularity of spongy Bimbo bread, tortillas are everywhere. They are the basis of quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, enfrijoladas and much more. These days, they are more likely to be made from the dry masa mix, rather then freshly ground, dried corn. There is no comparison between the flavor of the two, but a corn grinder is not a usual household applicance, even in Mexico. So we all eat tortillas made from Maseca, though today’s modern Mexican youngsters probably do not even know what tortillas made from freshly ground corn taste like. No doubt, in the remote villages of Mexico, the real tortillas are all they know.

For some reason, my dear chief taster has had this fantasy that his esposa will some day slap masa between her hands and make corn tortillas for him regulary. Maybe this has something to do with a wish to return to simpler times. With a tortilleria only a block away, this is one fantasy that is not going to happen. Or so I thought until he gave me a beautiful, wooden tortilla press as a gift. What else could I do, but make tortillas for him. This one time.


Do you have a tortilla press and a mate who thinks you are going to slap together fresh tortillas for breakfast? If so, buy a bag of Maseca, or better yet, go to your local tortilleria and buy some fresh masa. That’s what I did. A half kilo of fresh masa cost six pesos, the same as a half kilo of tortillas. In other words, it cost the same for an equal weight of freshly cooked, steaming tortillas as it does for the masa, leaving me to go home, press the tortillas, then stand over a very hot griddle. But if making corn tortillas will make your day, here’s how to do it.

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If you live in a town with a tortilleria, buy fresh masa. One pound (one-half kilo) will make twelve to fifteen tortillas. If you are not lucky enough to live near a tortilleria, buy a bag of Maseca or Quaker Masa Hariana de Maiz and follow the instructions on the package. Their instructions call for 2 cups of masa mix, 1 1/4 cups of water, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir together, adding water in small increments if the dough is too dry and cracks when a test tortilla is pressed, or adding more masa if it is too wet and sticks to the plastic bags in the press.

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Whether your masa is fresh from a tortilleria, or mixed at home, pinch off enough dough to roll a ball in your hands that is slightly larger than a walnut. Keep the balls covered with a towel or plastic bag so they don’t dry before they get to the griddle or comal.

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Lay a plastic bag on your tortilla press, set a ball of dough in the center, cover that with another plastic bag, and bring down the upper part of the press with moderate pressure. That’s it — remove the tortilla from the bags and place on a very hot, unoiled griddle. After a few minutes, when brown spots start to appear on the under-side, turn it over. It will start to puff a little. Cook another minute or two, until small brown spots again appear underneath. Don’t overcook or it will be crispy. We are after soft tortillas.

Once you can stand back and survey your handiwork, you are ready to make quesadillas, Baja fish tacos or enchiladas rojas. The side of the tortilla that puffed up is called the “face” and experts say it goes inside a taco or quesadilla, because it may peel off. Once I have the tortillas cooked and off the griddle, I can’t tell which side is which. But, I’m no expert.

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The two illustrations at the top are from the Florentine Codex and the Mendoza Codex, repectively, and are in Public Domain.