Today: Tortilla soup escapes the 1990s.
- Kristen Miglore, Senior Editor, Food52.com
I'm going to blame the 1990s for sullying tortilla soup. By the end of that colorful, fusion-obsessed decade, every fast-casual restaurant seemed to be peddling the same muddy version. You remember it: burnt sienna broth with a few shreds of chicken and tortilla dangling in it, along with maybe a handful of Niblets.
But there are all kinds of tortilla soups out there. It's not just a sad American commodity in a to-go cup, but a truly regional specialty that repurposes the daily bread of Mexico in different ways all over the country.
But perhaps the most genius version comes from Rick Bayless, whose own rise to fame mirrored and probably fueled that of tortilla soup. As you likely already know -- from his many cookbooks and accolades, his Top Chef Mastery and PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time: for a guy from Oklahoma who isn't Mexican at all, Bayless knows a lot about Mexican food.
He was qualified, then, to introduce a simple, excellent version of tortilla soup in Authentic Mexican in 1987 -- and he's been including variations in most of his cookbooks since. "I wrote a classic but flexible recipe for it in Authentic Mexican, but I still have more to say," he wrote in the headnote to his genius-ified version in Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen almost 10 years later.
In it, he sharpens the flavors and textures, leaving a more vivid impression than before. He takes some of the toasted pasilla chile garnish he'd only scattered on top in earlier iterations -- and blends it into the soup base, unleashing it. He singes the tomatoes and garlic and blends them in too, but leaves the golden threads of onion intact: barely there wisps that put up weak, sweet resistance.
This might sound like a lot of steps, but each one is quick and advances you toward soup with a checklist that's anything but tedious: Cutting chiles with scissors! Blistering tomatoes! Blending violently! Plus the instructions make up for lost time elsewhere.
The whole soup, complex and thrilling as it may be, can come together within an hour, give or take.
The broth is enchanting on its own, and the garnishes electrify it. Lime sparkles, sweet toasted chiles crackle and bend, cheese clings to your spoon, and crisp but vulnerable tortilla strips sink in, encouraging you to spoon faster.
Adapted slightly from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World-Class Cuisine (Scribner, 1996)
Makes about 6 cups, serving 4 to 6 as a starter
4 to 6 corn tortillas, preferably stale store-bought ones
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 to 5 medium (about 1 1/2 ounces total) dried pasilla chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 medium-large round ripe tomato (or substitute canned tomatoes, drained)
1 medium white onion, sliced 1/8 thick
6 cups good broth, preferably chicken
Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon, depending on saltiness of broth
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Mexican Chihuahua cheese, or other melting cheese such as brick or Monterey Jack
1 large lime, cut into 6 wedges
4 cups loosely packed, thinly sliced (preferably red) chard leaves (you'll need about 2/3 of a 12-ounce bunch)
1. Slice the tortillas into 1/8-inch-wide strips. Heat 1/3 cup of the vegetable oil in a medium-size (8-to-9 inch) skillet over medium-high. When hot, add about 1/3 of the tortilla strips and fry, turning frequently, until they are crisp on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Fry the remaining strips in 2 batches.
2. Cut chiles into rough 1-inch squares using kitchen shears. Reduce the heat under the oil to medium-low, let cool a minute, then fry the squares very briefly to toast them, 3 or 4 seconds; immediately remove and drain on paper towels. Place 1/3 of the chiles in a small bowl, cover with hot water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes, stirring regularly to ensure even soaking. Drain and discard the water. Set aside the remaining fried chiles.
3. Roast the garlic and tomato on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened and blistered on one side, about 6 minutes; flip and broil the other side. Cool, then peel both, collecting any juices. Note: Alternately, substitute drained canned tomatoes and roast the garlic in a dry skillet on the stovetop.
4. In a medium-size (4-quart) pot, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-low. Add the onion and fry until brown, about 10 minutes. Place the rehydrated chiles in a food processor or blender along with the roasted garlic, tomato and 1 cup of the broth; puree until smooth. Raise the temperature under the pot to medium-high, and, when noticeably hotter, press the tomato-chile puree through a medium-mesh strainer into the fried onion. Stir for several minutes as the mixture thickens and darkens. Mix in the remaining 5 cups of broth, then simmer uncovered over medium-low, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Season with salt.
5. Set out the garnishes. Just before serving, reheat the soup, add the sliced chard and simmer until the chard is tender, 5 or 6 minutes. Ladle into warm soup bowls and pass the garnishes for each guest to use al gusto.
6. Notes for advance preparation - The soup itself can be prepared several days ahead, but the chard will be freshest if you add it only as you're reheating the soup in the last few minutes. The fried tortillas will keep for a day wrapped in foil on the counter.
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Photos by James Ransom