Thursday, March 03, 2011


It appears I’m on a soup kick this year; this is my fourth new soup recipe in two months. Not only did this recipe at The Pioneer Woman Cooks look colorful and delicious and generally souptastic, but it also gave me an excuse to buy fresh, handmade corn tortillas. Yes, folks, nearly seven years after moving to Los Angeles, I’ve finally found a source for good tortillas. Really, I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to discover the awesome Mexican grocery just a few miles up the road, where you can buy a stack of several dozen perfectly tender, addictively flavorful, ridiculously simple (“ingredients: corn, water”) tortillas for just 99 cents. I’m even more embarrassed that it took me nearly as long to like corn tortillas, because I’d mostly only had the dry, mealy storebought ones. Falling in love with the good ones has been a total revelation.

This is a fairly basic tomatoey chicken and bean soup made remarkable by three things:
  1. Stirring in cornmeal, which I’d never done before, gives a faint nutty, savory flavor and subtly creamy texture.
  2. Those tortillas are the superstars here, added the soup without baking or frying—a rarity among tortilla soup recipes I found online, and dubiously received by some of the commenters, but to me, it makes a lot of sense. It seems more authentic somehow—I can see this recipe originally being created, like chilaquiles, as a thrifty way to use up slightly stale tortillas. It’s such a win-win for common sense: The cheap tortillas bulk up the soup and make the expensive meat stretch further, and the soup rehydrates potentially dried-out old tortillas and makes them toothsome again. But even if you’re using fresh tortillas as I was, it’s still a great idea: The tortillas lend their corny flavor to the soup, the soup’s flavor soaks into the tortillas, and, particularly after a day or more has elapsed, they have the irresistible soft-chewy texture of noodles. Even if you’re skittish about the idea of soggy tortillas, promise me you’ll give it a try. You can always garnish with corn chips if you want the crunchy topping too.
  3. The garnishes really amp things up. As with chili, the sky’s the limit and the combinations are nearly endless. I think avocado, cilantro, and lime are a must, and onions (I used green instead of PW’s red) and cheese are strongly recommended, but you could add salsa/pico de gallo and sour cream as well. I only added avocado to about half the leftover servings, because I had a lot of them and I wasn’t sure how avocado would hold up over the long term (especially if I ended up freezing it). Then later in the week, after making fish tacos (I had a lot of tortillas to use up, after all), made the miraculous discovery that the leftover avocado cream sauce (that’s pureed avocado, lime, cilantro, and yogurt) was excellent when drizzled atop the avocado-less soup portions. When stirred in thoroughly, it froze just fine. In fact, it was so good that next time I’d consider making avocado cream specifically for the purpose of adding it to my tortilla soup.
In short, we really liked this soup. However, I’d do a few things differently next time. Overall, the soup base was blander than I’d expected. Granted, I wasn’t able to cook it quite as long as the recipe directed, and the flavor did improve the next day. But I think there are a few other factors. Using half broth and half water definitely made it taste watered-down; next time, I’ll make a half-recipe (this made a ton) and use all broth. And even gussied up with the spice rub, I don’t think the boneless, skinless chicken breasts did the soup any favors. I don’t really like white meat that much, but even chicken breast off the bone has exponentially more flavor. Usually, I use leftover roasted chicken or chicken I’ve boiled for stock to stir into soups, and I should have followed that impulse here, but I wanted to obey the recipe the first time through. Next time, I’ll do off-the-bone chicken instead (if you don’t usually have a stash of it in your freezer as I do, a storebought rotisserie chicken would do the trick) and just stir all the spice rub into the soup in Step 3. I also think one could squeeze in more veggies: a bit more bell pepper, maybe some fresh or frozen corn kernels, and possibly a diced jalapeno to add a bit more spice? I’ll try all these changes out next time and report back to you. But even if you make the recipe as written in the meantime, I think you’ll be pleased.

2 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1½ teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon salt, plus additional salt to taste
1 cup diced onion
½ cup (or more) diced bell pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with green chilies (such as Rotel, or Trader Joe’s fire-roasted tomatoes with green chilies; just use a can of diced tomatoes plus a can of green chilies if you can’t find this)
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups water
2 15-ounce cans black beans, drained
3 tablespoons cornmeal
5 corn tortillas, cut into uniform strips
1–2 ripe avocados, diced
Juice of 1 lime
Sliced green onions to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro to taste
Grated pepper Jack, Monterey Jack, or cheddar cheese to taste

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix cumin, chili pepper, garlic powder, and salt in a small bowl. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil on chicken breasts, then sprinkle a small amount of spice mix on both sides. Set aside the rest of the spice mix.

2. Place chicken breasts on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until chicken is just done. Use two forks to shred chicken. Set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pot over medium high heat. Add diced onion, bell pepper, and minced garlic. Stir and begin cooking, then add the rest of the spice mix. Stir to combine, then add shredded chicken and stir.

4. Pour in diced tomatoes and chilies, chicken stock, tomato paste, water, and black beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered.

5. Mix cornmeal with a small amount of water (I used a couple of tablespoons). Pour into the soup, then simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Check seasonings, adding more if needed—add more chili powder if it needs more spice (I added some chipotle chili powder at this point, which was an excellent decision), and be sure not to undersalt. Turn off heat and allow to sit for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Five minutes before serving, gently stir in tortilla strips.

6. Ladle soup into bowls, then top with desired garnishes such as diced avocado, lime juice (to keep the avocado fresher, I recommend tossing it with the lime juice and then adding the mixture to the soup), green onions, cilantro, and grated cheese.

Serves: 8
Time: 2½ hours
Leftover potential: Great; leftovers will keep for at least a week in the fridge, improving with time, and can be frozen indefinitely.

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