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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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.


Caldo de res — Mexican beef soup

Caldo de Res, Mexican beef soup, is perfect for our unusually chilly winter. With chunks of tender beef and vegetables, including chayote, this soup is found on menus all across Mexico. Years ago, before we settled here, we would cross the border and drive all day through the desserts of northern Mexico to reach the highlands and jungles further south. As we drove, we would be already thinking about that day’s breakfast and lunch, our mouths almost salivating with anticipation of the upcoming meal, the first real Mexican food since our last trip south. Driving all day was tiring, the northern desserts could become boring. The thought of lunch or dinner was the carrot dangled in front of us. Onward to the next town and its restaurants, with their regional dishes of locally grown and raised chiles, beef, tomatoes, chayote, and more. I guess you could say we travel on our stomachs.

“Chayote?”, you are wondering. Also known as mirliton in France, and vegetable pear in English, it is a common squash south of the border, served in soups or stewed with tomatoes. Its unique appearance sets it off from the more familiar squashes, with tucked-in creases on its wide end. Zucchini makes a good substitute if you can’t find chayote.

Thinly sliced shanks and meaty beef bones make a rich broth. Oscar and Marta at Kenny’s Carniceria know I’m a regular soup maker, so they slice the bones thinly for me. Ask for chambarete (sham-bar-EH-tay) if you are shopping in Mexico. I brown the meat and bones first for richer flavors. I don’t pretend to be a food scientists, so this is the best explanation I can offer: when foods brown, chemical reactions take place, resulting in hundreds of different flavor compounds. This same reaction gives cajeta, (dulce de leche) its marvelous taste.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 lbs. (1 kilo) shank and soup bones, thinly sliced
  • 2 quarts water plus more as needed
  • 2 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1/8 head of small cabbage, chopped
  • 1 ear of corn, husked and cut into 4-6 pieces, or slice off kernals
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry Mexican oregano
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, epazote, minced
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • cilantro for garnish
  1. Heat oil in large, heavy-bottomed pot and brown meat and bones on all sides, about 15-20 minutes.
  2. Add water, cover and simmer 1 hour, or until meat is tender (or pressure cook 30 minutes).
  3. Pour off broth and reserve. Skim off any fat.
  4. Remove meat from bones when cool enough to handle.
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in large pot over medium-low heat and cook onion until tender.
  6. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds, stirring.
  7. Add carrot, potato, cabbage and corn and reserved broth. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
  8. Add meat, tomato and fresh herbs and simmer 5 minutes more.
  9. Salt to taste.
  10. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with lime wedges and warm corn tortillas.

Notes ~

~ For a traditional bowl of caldo de res, vegetable size matters. Cut the pieces into large cubes, slices or chunks for an authentic presentation. Mexican soups are always served with lime wedges and corn tortillas.

~ Of all those bowls of caldo de res we ate while traveling across Mexico, neither of us can ever remember chile being one of the ingredients. For heat, a dish of cooked salsa was brought to the table. Salsa roja would make a nice accompaniment to serve with caldo de res.

~ Again, we have the Aztec Nahuatl language to thank for the word, chayohtli, which became the Spanish word, chayote.

~ Corn, or elote, as it is known in Mexico, is still a foreign vegetable to me. Tough and starchy, it is not the sweet, tender, juicy corn we grew up with north of the border. It is included in the recipe and photo for the purpose of remaining true to the preparation and presentation of caldo de res, but I generally omit it because I simply can’t chew Mexican ears of corn. Mexicanos love their elote, sold roasted on sticks, smeared with mayonnaise, and sprinkled with lime juice and chile powder. I have yet to find one tender enough to chew.

More Warming Mexican Soups

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Oxtail Soup from “Like Water for Chocolate”

Oxtail Soup from the novel, Like Water for Chocolate

It has been many years since I read Like Water for Chocolate and I had never made any of its dishes. When I recently leafed through it to check out the recipes — each of the twelve chapters has a recipe woven into the story — I could not help but be pulled back into this family saga of love and anguish, and the amazing dishes made by the youngest daughter Tita. Written in the style of “magic realism”, a genre common in Latin American literature, this is the story of one emoting, fantasy-driven family living on a ranch during the Mexican revolution.

Tita is forbidden to marry in order to stay home and care for her tyrannical mother. Unable to express her passion for her lover, Pedro, she pours her heart into her cooking, making dishes such as turkey mole with almonds, quail in rose petal sauce, and Champandongo, an exotically named casserole of meat, tortillas and cheese, all of which affect the passions of the eaters. One of these emotionally charged meals is the humbly named Oxtail Soup (Caldo de Cola de Res).

I do not have a source for organic rose petals, or even organic quail, but I can buy oxtail from Kenny’s Meat Market, our local carnicería which sells locally raised, range-fed beef. So called “oxtail” is beef tail, and not really from oxen. Cooking with oxtail is one more example of Mexican cooks’ preference, born of economy and thrift, to use all parts of the animal, something I admire in this culture. If you can’t find oxtail, meaty soup bones are a fine substitute. If you do buy oxtails, ask the butcher to cut it into 2-3″ lengths.

Oxtail Soup serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 1/2 lbs. (about 1 kilo) oxtails, cut into 2-3″ lengths
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • water to cover, about 2-3 quarts/liters
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 lb. (.25 kilo) green beans, cut into 2″ length
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle chile with adobo sauce, seeded and finely minced
  • salt to taste
  • cilantro for garnish
  1. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and brown oxtails.
  2. Add onion and garlic and cook until tender.
  3. Add water to cover and simmer for 1 hour or pressure cook for 20 minutes.
  4. Remove meat to cool. When cool enough to handle, pull meat from bones, and cut into bite-sized pieces. Pour off stock and skim most of the fat from the surface, reserving meat and stock.
  5. In the same pot, heat oil over medium-low heat and cook chopped onion and garlic until translucent.
  6. Add potatoes and  stock and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 10 minutes. Add green beans, tomatoes and chile and cook until all vegetables are tender.
  7. Salt to taste. Garnish with chopped cilantro.


The original recipe calls for chile morita, a type of dried jalapeño. This chile may be difficult to find,  so I substituted chipotle chiles en adobo, smoked, dried jalapeño canned in a tomato and vinegar sauce.

Like Water for Chocolate was written by Laura Esquivel and published in 1992 by Doubleday. The title comes from the Spanish phrase, “Como agua para chocolate”.  Mexican recipes use water, not milk, to make hot chocolate. Chocolate melts when the water reaches a boil, so the phrase can mean one is boiling mad, or, as a double entendre, that one is erotically aroused, with both emotions evident in the novel.

Campbell sold oxtail soup many years ago in the U.S., but it seems to have disappeared from the stores. Tastes change through the years, but oxtail soup remains popular in Asian cuisine and in Great Britain.

More Mexican Soups:

  • Black Bean Soup with Chipotle Chile (cookinginmexico.com)
  • Albóndigas, Mexican Meatballs with Chipotle and Tomato Broth (cookinginmexico.com)
  • Chipotle Lentil Soup (cookinginmexico.com)
  • Caldo Pescado with Chipotle Chile (cookinginmexico.com)
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