Serious Eats asked this week what we’re all cooking to keep us warm and cozy during this long winter spell. Soup is my number one go-to to during the colder months. What I like to do is to make a few batches of it when the inspiration hits and then to freeze it to have on hand. This was particularly helpful when I was sick a few months back and couldn’t bring myself to cook for each meal.
So far, I’ve eaten my way through almost two batches of my favorite winter stand-by Winter Squash Soup with Gruyère Croutons, many bowls of Peter Gordon’s Spicy Red Lentil, Coriander & Coconut Soup with Chicken Dumplings, and several hearty helpings of Tuscan Bean Stew. These dishes have definitely kept me going in sickness and in health this season. At the same time, I’m also always on the look out for new recipes to try to add to my collection.
Back when I was right out of college and working many long hours at a non-profit firm, I would sometimes stop by a local restaurant on my way home. I would order Southwestern Chicken-Tortilla Soup, which would take me away from the mundane life of a low-level administrator working in highly bureaucratic Washington, D.C. and into a warm, sunny world miles away. Over the years, I’ve pulled various versions of this recipe for my files, but I was never quite sure that I’d found the right one based upon my now-vague memories of it.
Last weekend, I decided to take the plunge and cobble together what I think is a reasonable interpretation of what used to be my favorite weeknight fallback meal. While I think a little bit more fussing and fiddling might be necessary with some of the seasoning, I feel that it came out pretty close to how I remember it tasting. Like the other soups I’ve prepared this winter, the key is that this one can be frozen and reheated for later on, when you need to get rid of the bone-chilling cold and sniffling nose and to dream of warmer climes.
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast cutlets
2 Tbsp, vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 medium jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 14.5 oz. can low-salt chicken broth
1 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes
juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Corn tortilla per person
1 Tbsp, vegetable oil
2 avocados, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Mexican cheese mix
Finely chopped fresh cilantro
Poach chicken breast by pouring water into a sauté pan and allowing it to come to a simmer. Put the meat into the pan and allow to cook in the heated water for about 4 minutes per side, or until cooked through (this might take a bit longer for thicker pieces). When finished, remove the chicken from the pan, place on a cutting board, and set aside. Reserve the cooking liquid.
Heat two tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion and allow to cook for 3 minutes over medium heat. Add in the garlic and jalapeno and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Stir in the cumin, oregano, and coriander and cook the mixture for 2 minutes to allow the flavor of the spices to come forward.
Pour the chicken stock and the tomatoes, along with their juices, into the pan. Fill the can that held the chicken broth with water and swish it around. Pour the contents of that can into the can that held the tomatoes and swish it around to get out the last bits of flavor. Pour that can into the pan holding the rest of the ingredients. Stir everything together and bring to the boil.
Turn the heat down and allow the mixture to simmer for 30 minutes until it becomes a bit thicker and all the flavors have a chance to meld. Add the reserved cooking liquid from the poached chicken to the soup. Stir every few minutes to break up the tomatoes into smaller chunks. While the soup is bubbling away, shred the chicken into 1-inch pieces.
The tortilla garnish can also be prepared while the soup is cooking. Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush both sides of the corn tortillas with vegetable oil and place in one layer on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes until the sides curl up and they look as though they have crisped up. Set aside.
Once the soup is finished, turn off the stove, and blend with an immersion blender (you can use a conventional one as well, but a hand held model is much easier) until all the tomatoes and vegetables are incorporated. You can leave it slightly chunky or make it completely smooth depending upon your taste. Add in the lime juice and shredded chicken and stir to incorporate. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
To serve, ladle soup into shallow bowls. Put a dollop of sour cream in the center of every bowl. Scatter around the chopped avocado. Sprinkle each serving with shredded cheese and chopped cilantro. Take one tortilla per bowl and break it into small pieces allowing them to fall over the soup and rest of the garnishes. Add a lime wedge to each serving. These crunchy bits will provide a toasted corn backnote to the slightly spicy dish.
Unlike my earlier attempt, this time things seemed to work out a bit better. I don’t know if it was that I had more confidence in the method, or if the batter came together better or if maybe my technique is actually improving. The sweet batch seemed a bit thicker than the savory one, which was easier to work with. Maybe it was because the pan I was using to cook them it is seasoned a bit more, having been used a few times.
I did feel a bit pressured to get this right on the first try. My mom’s lasagna was much in demand when we were growing up, and she took a particular pride in this recipe. She had even purchased extra sausage and had frozen it to have on hand, which my father and I found when we were poking around in the freezer. Some pretty high stakes were riding on my producing something that would remind everyone of family dinners gone by, but in a good way.