The first time I wrote about tortilla soup on this blog, the girls were playing cops and robber at recess and were so young I had to call it “taco soup” because tortillas were just so, you know, sophisticated (read: intimidating) sounding. The second time I wrote about it (as an ideal “deconstructable dinner“) was May, 2012, a month away from publishing my first book. Three books, five years and approximately seventy-five pairs of Nike cleats later, I’m sorry to say, loyalists: I need to write about it again.
Except I’m not really that sorry, because this is a new version of the soup that has somehow taken it from a meal to be tolerated to a meal that my kids routinely beg us to make for them. And I hope it becomes that for you, too.
Falling in love with it all over again started on vacation this past August. We flew to South Carolina with Andy’s parents for our annual stay at their beach villa, and though the flight went smoothly, we got caught up in some rental car drama and weren’t in our white Dodge Durango heading home until almost 8:00 pm. Everyone was tired and hungry and wanted to just be settled, so we decided to swing by the local supermarket for a very targeted mission: breakfast stuff for the morning, plus the basic ingredients for a shortcut tortilla soup — rotisserie chicken, onion, tomato paste, chicken broth, onion, shredded cheddar, avocado, and a bag of tortilla chips. I told Andy to time me when he dropped me off at Harris Teeter’s — I was in and out in under seven minutes.
At home, while everyone was unpacking, I sautéed the onion in a pot, added some salt, pepper, chile flakes, tomato paste, poured in the broth. While it came to a simmer, I sliced an avocado, used my fingers to shred the chicken on a platter and placed everything on the table with bowls of broth. We were all seated around the table within 15 minutes, and maybe it was because of the whole hunger-is-the-best-sauce thing, or maybe the rotisserie chicken at Harris Teeter’s is particularly flavorful, I don’t know, but I could tell by the girls’ eyeballs that something special was going on here that never had gone on before. It wasn’t just them: My father-in-law talked about that 15-minute soup all week long.
A few weeks later, when I had a little bit more time, I made it again, this time frying tortilla strips instead of buying store-bought chips (a trick I picked up in Melissa Clark’s Dinner) and simmering some chicken breasts in a stash of homemade chicken stock that I had on hand for exactly this kind of thing. Paydirt.
When Abby requested it for dinner yesterday, I told her I thought I had everything I needed so yeah, that would be fine.
“Do you have tortillas” she asked. “Because I’m never not having it without those tortilla strips.”
After attempting to decipher the triple negative, I concluded she approved of the tortilla strips. And lucky for her — for all of us — I had a pack of tortillas in the freezer. Bonus: Game 4 of the ALCS was on, one of the few occasions where dinner in front of the TV is mandatory, so we got to enjoy the soup while the Yankees came from behind to tie the series. I’d call that a win-win.
It’s all about the toppings really. None of which (except those tortilla strips) need to be cooked. Makes 4 servings. Feel free to substitute store-bought chips for the homemade ones.
1 small onion, diced (a little more than 1/3 cup)
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 jalapeno, seeds and pith mostly removed, minced (or a few shakes of chile flakes)
1 garlic clove, halved
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 large uncooked salted and peppered chicken breasts (or rotisserie chicken or any kind of cooked chicken)
5 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
3 flour tortillas, cut into 1/2-inch-wide-ish strips as shown above
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lime, quartered
Any or all of the following toppings: Sliced avocado, chopped cilantro, sour cream, shredded sharp cheddar, chopped scallions
In a medium-large soup pot, over medium heat, cook onions, salt, pepper, jalapeño, and garlic in olive oil until onions are slightly wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste so it coats everything and let sizzle for a minute or so.
If using uncooked chicken breasts, add them to the pot, along with the chicken broth. If using rotisserie chicken or already cooked chicken, just add broth. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer about 12 minutes, until chicken is cooked through. If you are not cooking your own chicken, you only have to simmer for a few minutes, until the broth is warmed through.
Meanwhile, add vegetable oil to heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) and turn heat to medium-high. Fry strips in batches until golden and crispy, about 30 seconds a side. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate. (Suggestion: Cover them with paper towels, too, so they are not visible, or else you run the risk of passers-by, not naming any names, stealthily pilfering them, leaving you to wonder why you never seem to have enough no matter how long you stand there frying the dumb things.)
Remove chicken, shred with two forks and add back to pot. (If it’s not entirely cooked through, let it simmer another few minutes.) If using rotisserie chicken, add to pot now. Fish out the garlic halves.
Add all toppings, including tortilla strips, to a platter or cutting board and place on your table. Ladle soup in bowls, squeeze the juice from one lime quarter into each serving, and have everyone customize his or her own bowl.