The Saving Grace of Soup
As I have written here before, I do not winter well. Granted, I do not live in a climate with an especially long or harsh winter, but perhaps the perception of the deep south as a relatively warm place tricks me into thinking that I shouldn’t have to suffer winter at all. Adding to the illusion, cold weather doesn’t really kick in here until after Christmas, so I come up from a brisk, chilly holiday season thinking that spring should soon be on its way.
Only, I’d better get through January and February first. This winter has been especially cold and wet — it rained and stayed below 40 degrees every day for the first three weeks of the spring semester — but I’d braced myself to be prepared. After all, aren’t pregnant women chronically hot? I’m afraid carrying an extra person around with me has not made the wet chill in the air easier to endure as I’d hoped.
Just when I thought I could duck beneath the covers and stay until April, the Japanese magnolia in our front yard burst into purple and white blooms, showering the ground beneath with a welcome carpet of petals quietly announcing that the end must be near. Armed with this tiny bit of hope for warmer weather, I determined to make it through the next few weeks of blustery cold. To get me through and provide sustenance for our growing little family, David and I got into the habit of making soup on Sundays.
A fitting winter Sunday afternoon project, making soup requires leaving the stove on for hours at a time and ends with comfort food to last through the week. If you are just barely surviving winter where you are, I highly recommend this seasonal therapy. For me, it accomplishes several things at once: it warms me as I cook it, it warms me when I eat it, and it provides food for us on the nights when I just want to come home, put on my pajamas, and crawl into bed without standing over the stove. Soup has surely saved us from many a night of take-out (although we’ve had our share of those too). If you’re hankering for a warm bowl of something to tide you over until spring, head over to A Veggie Venture, where Alanna has been collecting soup recipes all month long.
This tortilla soup, adapted from the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, is not particularly difficult, although it does require a few preliminary steps before you throw everything into the pot to simmer. The complexly layered flavors reminds me a bit of a hot gazpacho: fresh with garlic and onions, rich with tomatoes and broth, smoky with the heat of the dried chilies. The onions and garlic I used were especially pungent; next time I make it, I might saute half of them to soften their bite just a bit.
A word about the dried chilies: the Lees call for a combination of anchos or mulatos and pasilla or guajilla chilies. I couldn’t find either of the latter two, so I substituted another dried hot variety, chiles de arbol. If you can’t find any dried chilies at all, I would recommend substituting roasted ones (poblanos would work well, I think, combined with a hotter pepper like a habanero or a serrano). Canned chipotles would also add an interesting note of smokiness and heat.
Whatever you do, don’t skip the toppings — they make the soup, in my opinion.
Vegetarian Tortilla Soup
2 cups corn or canola oil
4 whole dried chiles ancho (or other sweet-smoky pepper)
4 whole dried chiles de arbol (or other hot pepper)
10 soft yellow corn tortillas
5 cups vegetable broth (you can substitute chicken broth for a non-veg version)
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
1 large yellow onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, chopped,
Kosher salt, to taste
Cracked black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup sour cream
zest and juice of 1 lime
1/4 t. chile powder
1/4 t. seasoned salt
Heat about an inch of the oil in a soup pot. While the oil heats up, prepare the dried chiles: slit each one down its side, remove the stem and seeds, and cut into large pieces. (Kitchen shears are well-suited for this job). Add the chile pieces to the hot oil in batches, toasting for about a minute per batch. They should be a little soft and fragrant. Remove with tongs to a plate and set aside.
Add the rest of the oil to the pot and heat to about 350 degrees (medium-high on my electric stove). Meanwhile, cut 6 of the tortillas into thin strips; leave the remaining 4 whole. Line a plate with paper towels. Fry the whole tortillas one at a time for about 1 minute per side, or until crisp. Remove to paper towel-lined plate and season immediately with cumin, chile powder, and seasoned salt. Repeat with tortilla strips, which will crisp faster. Discard the oil.
To the pot (I used the same one), add 2 cups of broth, diced onions, chopped garlic, and the canned tomatoes and liquid. Sprinkle with a palmful of Kosher salt. Bring to a boil. Add the toasted chiles. Crumble in the whole tortillas. Simmer (bubbles just below the surface) until the liquid has reduced by about a fourth, about 10-15 minutes. At this point, you’re going to puree the soup in a blender. Here’s what I recommend: pour the hot soup into the blender and let it sit for a few minutes to cool.
Meanwhile, you can prepare the toppings: stir together the buttermilk, sour cream, lime zest and juice, and seasonings. Wash and chop the cilantro and/or green onions. Slice the avocado. Get out some bowls.
When you think the soup is cool enough not to explode your blender, place a dish towel over the top of the blender, and pulse a few times. If it appears to be behaving, puree until smooth. Return the pureed soup to the pot, add the remaining broth, and bring back to a simmer. Serve with a dollop of the lime cream, a handful of cilantro, slices of avocado, and a fistful of tortilla strips. Be warm and think lovely thoughts of a coming spring!
PS: Thanks to all who have sent pregnancy encouragement my way; your thoughts and words of kindness have brightened many a dreary, tired day!