Ahh, tortilla soup. So comforting, so delicious, and so abused. Like chili or gumbo, there are many versions being produced in home kitchens and restaurants. It was interesting to surf the Internet and read the recipes, all claiming to be the VERY BEST. Well, I haven't tried most of those recipes, but I feel certain that tortilla soup should not be made from Campbell's chicken and potato soup, as in several recipes that I read. It shouldn't have cups of pureed carrots and celery and powdered taco seasoning. Flour tortillas should not be added to the broth, to dissolve into mush. I assume that this is an attempt to thicken the broth, because many of the recipes show a completed soup looking more like mashed potatoes. But, the broth should not be thick. It should be thin and full of flavor from chilies, tomatoes and herbs. And finally, corn tortillas should be fried or toasted in the oven before they are scattered into the soup. No soft flour tortillas, no taco chips. Just say no! Recipes aren't written in stone, unless it's seafood gumbo. But there are limits to messing with a good thing.
I'm certainly not claiming that this recipe is the final statement on tortilla soup. But it produces, in my opinion, a very good soup that navigates the difficulty of obtaining some crucial ingredients. Specifically, I'm talking about epazote, which I've never seen in the grocery stores here in town. A good Mexican grocery would have it, but in light of my last minute craving for the soup, an ingredients search in another town was out of the question. Substituting it with cilantro and fresh oregano works well, if not perfectly. Growing epazote in my garden would be the best solution. Cotija cheese, a salty tangy Mexican cheese is now widely available in stores, but you could substitute monterey jack.
There are so many recipes calling for taco chips and soft corn or flour tortillas. That would be like using Wonder Bread in onion soup. Corn tortillas, fried or crisped in the oven, give a taste and texture that's unbeatable. It is called tortilla soup, and the tortillas deserve some respect and effort.
There are other good recipes for tortilla soup. Rick Bayless has an excellent recipe. This came from Cook's, is quite simple to make--and very much worth it.
8 corn tortillas (6-inch), cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 split bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds) or 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 1 1/4 pounds), skin removed and well trimmed of excess fat
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 very large white onion (about 1 pound), trimmed of root end, quartered, and peeled
4 medium cloves garlic , peeled
2 sprigs epazote , fresh, or 8 to 10 sprigs fresh cilantro plus 1 sprig fresh oregano
2 medium tomatoes , cored and quartered
1/2 medium jalapeño chile
1 chipotle chile en adobo , plus up to 1 tablespoon adobo sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 lime , cut into wedges
1 Hass avocado , diced fine
8 ounces cotija cheese, crumbled, or Monterey Jack cheese, diced fine
fresh cilantro leaves
jalapeño chile, minced
Mexican crema or sour cream
Crisp strips of oven-fried corn tortillas add crunch and heft to a bowl of potent Mexican chicken soup flavored with chiles, tomatoes, and fresh herbs.
1. FOR THE TORTILLA STRIPS: Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 425 degrees. Spread tortilla strips on rimmed baking sheet; drizzle with oil and toss until evenly coated. Bake until strips are deep golden brown and crisped, about 14 minutes, rotating pan and shaking strips (to redistribute) halfway through baking time. Season strips lightly with salt; transfer to plate lined with several layers paper towels.
2. FOR THE SOUP: While tortilla strips bake, bring chicken, broth, 2 onion quarters, 2 garlic cloves, epazote, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to boil over medium-high heat in large saucepan; reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken is just cooked through, about 20 minutes. Using tongs, transfer chicken to large plate. Pour broth through fine-mesh strainer; discard solids in strainer. When cool enough to handle, shred chicken into bite-sized pieces; discard bones.
3. Puree tomatoes, 2 remaining onion quarters, 2 remaining garlic cloves, jalapeño, chipotle chile, and 1 teaspoon adobo sauce in food processor until smooth. Heat oil in Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering; add tomato/onion puree and 1/8 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture has darkened in color, about 10 minutes. Stir strained broth into tomato mixture, bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer to blend flavors, about 15 minutes. Taste soup; if desired, add up to 2 teaspoons additional adobo sauce. Add shredded chicken and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes. To serve, place portions of tortilla strips in bottom of individual bowls and ladle soup into bowls; pass garnishes separately.