Friday, July 27, 2012

Amping Up Chicken Tortilla Soup


In January 2002, I had the best chicken tortilla soup.  Ever.  Yes, that was over ten years ago, but I remember that soup very clearly. 

Will had just finished a 2-year contract working as a consultant for a tech company and was between jobs.  Honestly, the house never looked cleaner nor its inhabitants better fed than the six weeks he was not working.

One day during this period, I came home from a long day of teaching to find that the wood floors had been washed (yes, washed, not just swept!), that a fresh loaf of sweet potato bread had just come out of the oven, and that a pot of made-from-scratch chicken tortilla soup was simmering on the stove.  Making this soup involved poaching and hand-shredding chicken as one of its less involved directions.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if the recipe also directed the cook to hand-press home-made tortillas and fry them up.  (It didn’t, by the way.)  In any case, the labor produced a flavorful chicken broth and a fantastic soup.

Since then, chicken tortilla soup has become so much more ubiquitous, a standard at places like Corner Bakery or Panera.  Perhaps my second favorite—after Will’s—is at Frontera Grill Express.  It’s very different—much more smoky and heavily spiced—but very good, and a bargain to boot compared to some other items in an "Express" menu. 

During the school year, when cooking an elaborate dinner is the last thing on our minds, we sometimes heat up a tub of Kirkland Chicken Tortilla soup from Costco.  We were skeptical because the soup looked too thick, and we were a bit disappointed that the flavor was not sharper, more robust.  But we found a way to make it work.


Here’s a way to make store-bought Chicken Tortilla soup more fancy and special, with more kick and added layers of complex flavors and textures:

1.  Open up your tub of soup (it should be a refrigerated container to ensure that it is relatively fresh—nothing canned) and heat over medium high heat.  For about a quart of soup, pour about 1 cup chicken broth to the container and scrape down any extra bits before adding the broth to the soup in the pan to thin the soup a bit. As you can see, there is a lot of good stuff to dislodge from the sides of the container.  (If you have a pint of soup, add ½ cup of broth, etc.)


2.  While your soup is heating, prepare the sides.  Fill a deep bowl with a small handful of tortilla chips.  Aside from the tortilla chips, an ingredient that you cannot skip is salsa, preferably something from Rick Bayless’s Frontera line (like the smoky Roasted Red Pepper and Garlic, or the bright tasting Jalapeno Cilantro).  After that, add, to your taste, as many of the following accompaniments as you desire: shredded cheese (your choice); scallions sliced thin; slice of avocado, chopped tomatoes, sour cream.  (The picture at the top of this post includes everything.) 

As a sidenote, I should say that I find adding fresh ingredients like avocado elevates the humble soup to the level of a nice meal.


3.  Once your soup has come to a boil, simmer a few minutes to make sure that the extra chicken broth has incorporated well with the store-bought soup.  Then pour the soup over each prepared bowl.  Stir, and enjoy!


You can make the soup from scratch if you want, but this is a way to amp-up a store-bought version to make an eminently respectable home-“prepared” meal.


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