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Mexican Tortilla Soup Touches the Soul…

By Heidi Allison

The foundation of all great soups lies in the stock, and Mexican Tortilla soup is no exception. You’ll find as many variations of this signature dish as are there are regions in Mexico, from brick-red, tomato-based, thick-textured soups with a delicate “corn” flavor, to ebony-colored, slightly smoky, deeply aromatic, chili-infused broths. But…all variations of this dish have two things in common: a stellar stock, and, rich chili flavor with a mild “heat” level. Tortilla Soup is comfort food, served to nourish the body and soothe the soul!

The best tortilla soups use rich, deeply-flavored stocks that simmer on the stove for 18 to 36 hours, and use lots of collagen-producing bones. A variety of stocks—rich chicken stock, chicken and veal stock, chicken and pork stock and beef stock— are used as a base, and, “sweet” dried chilies, such as pasilla, ancho, and sometimes guajillo, season this national treasure.

The best soup I’ve ever tasted used a rich, 30-hour, low-and-slow gelatinous chicken stock flavored with chili ancho and guajillo, which created a dark, rich, slightly sweet and smoky aromatic chili-infused broth. Traditionally, chicken feet, chicken hindquarters (thighs and legs), along with chicken necks and backs, are used to create the requisite gelatinous, deeply rich tasting chicken broth. Its collagen, not fat, that creates the rich texture (also, adds protein!), while the legs, thighs, necks and backs impart the deep, soul-satisfying “chicken” taste. If you’re brave enough to attempt this version, most butchers can special order these parts. But, if you can’t wrap your head around using feet, a great alternative is substituting skinned chicken wings—just snip the tips to allow the wing to release more collagen. A third option is saving those leftover chicken carcasses you toss from store-bought roasted chickens, you’ll need 2-3 for this recipe and 2 hindquarters.

Use a slow-cooker—you don’t have to worry about the time or work that Nanna needed with this dish. Around 6:00 PM just add chicken to water and set it on low, and let it go for 18-30 hours. If you need to hurry it up, you’ll still get amazing color, mouth feel and flavor at 18 hours.

The second part of the broth uses dried chilies, which lend a dark, rich color, and slightly sweet, smoky flavor to the stock—the requisite flavor profile for this iconic dish. The best tortilla soups use ancho or chili pasilla, aka chili negro (do NOT use green, fresh poblanos; poblanos are often mislabeled in California as “pasilla”). You’ll get better flavor if you layer half of your garnish ingredients on the bottom of the empty soup bowl before adding the chili-infused broth, which melts the cheese, warms the avocado, and softens the fried tortilla strips, which impart a lovely, toasted corn flavor. Finish with a squeeze of fresh lime juice, chopped cilantro and an additional sprinkle of crispy tortilla strips right before serving.

Authentic Mexican Tortilla Soup
Serves: 4 as an entree; 8 as a appetizer


Mexican Chicken Broth
10 cups Water
3 pounds Chicken Feet, rinsed in salt water and nails snipped off (can substitute with 2 pounds Chicken Wings, skinned, and 1 pound Chicken Necks and Backs, chopped into large pieces)
2 Chicken Thigh/Leg hind-quarters, skinned

4 Roma Tomatoes
1 White Onion, peeled, halved and sliced 1/8 inch thick
4 large cloves Garlic
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Corn on the Cob, kernels removed; cob saved
¼ cup Olive Oil
2 Corn Tortillas
4 Ancho Chiles, stemmed, seeds removed
1 Guajillo Chile, stemmed and seeds removed
1 Tablespoon Ground Cumin
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
¼ cup Olive Oil
1 Roasted Chicken Breast (optional), shredded with 2 forks

3 Corn Tortillas; several days old, cut into ¼ inch strips and fried till crispy
2 Avocados, cut in half; then into ¼ inch cubes
½ cup Cotilla Cheese, crumbled
4 Limes, cut into quarters
1 small bunch Cilantro, leaves only, chopped
½ cup Mexican Crema (can substitute with 1 cup Creme Fraiche mixed with ¼ cup Half & Half); optional


To make the Stock

Place chicken feet and chicken hindquarters (or, chicken wings and necks and backs and 1 hindquarter) and 10 cups of water in a 5-quart crockpot. Cover and heat on a low setting for 24 hours. Remove any scum that comes to the surface with a fine-meshed sieve. Add 3 cups of water and heat for an additional 6 hours—stock should have a rich, golden color and heady chicken scent (the perfume of roasting chicken filling the whole house!)

Drain stock through a sieve into a glass container, and set aside. Throw out chicken parts; then cover strained stock with plastic wrap and place into fridge overnight. Remove any fat that rises and solidifies on top.

To make the Soup

Place corn kernels and tortilla pieces in a deep, heavy pot and place defatted chicken stock into a large pot and bring to a simmer.

Place tomatoes, onions and garlic in a foil-line baking sheet, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Heat oven to 375 degrees and roast until onions are golden and tomato skins are splitting. Remove tomato skins with your fingers and place in a deep pot with oil.

Place 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 corn tortillas and oil into a deep, heavy bottomed Dutch oven and heat on medium for several minutes, then reduce the heat to low, and add chilies and garlic, and heat until chilies begin to soften, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon—about 4 minutes more. You should smell a “raisiny” scent. If you detect an acrid scent—toss out and start again …burnt chilies taste bitter and will ruin the dish. Add in tomatoes paste and cumin and continue to stir, about 4 minutes more.
Add heated chicken stock and continue to heat on medium-low for 15-20 minutes. Place broth in a blender in two batches and purée until smooth.

Serve in a wide-brimmed bowl, layering half of the cotija cheese, crispy tortilla strips and avocado into the bottom of the empty soup bowl, then ladle in chili broth. Squeeze fresh lime juice over soup, then top with more cheese, tortilla strips and chopped cilantro. Serve immediately.

Authors Notes
You can roast a skinned chicken breast at 350°F, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, or, cut into ¼ inch strips, drizzle with oil and season and sauté till just done, then add to soup for a nice change!
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