Cinco de Mayo has come and gone. We’ve made it to Ocho de Mayo — a date that is arguably more significant to Mexican-American relations than the margarita-fest that May 5th has become. May 8th is the day in 1846 on which the Battle of Palo Alto — the first battle in the Mexican-American War — was fought outside of what is now Brownsville, TX.
The Battle of Palo Alto is a more somber — and potentially more divisive — battle than that of the Mexican army defeating French forces in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. The Mexican-American War that it precipitated still strikes a raw nerve in Mexico and the southwestern United States alike. Indeed, the losses suffered by Mexico following the two-year-long war eventually led the Mexican president to suspend debt payments to other countries for a period of two years, during which time the French, among other countries, sent forces to Mexico to demand that existing debts be paid…leading, eventually, to the Battle of Puebla.
That it took this political turmoil — both in 1846, and in 1862 — to set culinary wheels in motion is somewhat ironic. Mexico ceded over half of its national territory to the United States in the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, but that territory — land now located in the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California — retained and evolved its Mexican culinary origins. These are the places that gave rise to such dishes at nachos, chimichangas, chili, and the modern burrito — none of which are native to Mexico, but which have evolved in the United Sates from Mexican origins.
If all this is a little much to wrap your head around on a food blog, I suggest pondering it over a bowl of what is, actually, a true Mexican dish, but which has itself evolved once north of the border: Tortilla soup.
In addition to being a microcosm of Mexican cooking in a bowl, Tortilla soup is a great dish to put on the menu following Cinco de Mayo because it helps any thrifty chef use ingredients left on hand. It’s easy to prepare (this version, at least), packed with flavor and complexity, and a crowd-pleaser. Definitionally, this may be a “Leftover Soup,” but it’s another one that disguises itself as a “Showstopper Soup.” (See our post on Split Pea Soup for an explanation on what we mean by that!)
All the talk about battles and commemorations was a little beyond our Stout Sprouts, but this soup was right up their alley. I again put knives in the hands of my daughters (with supervision, and carefully chosen age-appropriate blades!) and encouraged them to cut the tortillas into strips before I fried them. Daughter 1 also happily volunteered for blender duty.
Daughter 2 proved herself very capable of snarfing down both the shredded chicken and the fried tortilla strips once they were crispy and sprinkled with a pinch of salt. A little pre-dinner appetizer, although there is nothing like telling the kids they are having tortilla chip soup to get them to finish every drop.
This dish can be as spicy or mild as you choose to make it, and allowing your family to choose their toppings also ensures they not only get what they want, but avoid what they don’t. What that means at our house is, loads of avocado in the Stout Sprouts’ bowls, but absolutely no cilantro. Nix on the lime wedges, too. But bring on the sour cream.
I also like that, though not a vegetarian dish because of the use of chicken and chicken stock, this soup goes light on the meat and gets its complex flavor from a blend of vegetables and spices…plus those lovely tortilla strips.
When you make this dish — and I hope that you will — think for a moment about this big melting pot of ours, and how the migration of flavors and meals throughout the world is due to both turbulence and times of peace. When cultures come together there will inevitably be conflict, but there will also be a sharing of food, and for that we are very lucky.
Quick Tortilla Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Generous pinch of Kosher salt
1 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups chicken stock (homemade if you have it, but boxed or canned is fine)
1 tablespoon adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (optional, but if you’re brave and like extra spice, add one entire pepper to the blender during the puree phase of this recipe)
2 cups shredded roasted chicken (from a home-roasted or grocery store rotisserie chicken, or a cooked chicken breast)
4 corn tortillas, cut into 1/4-inch strips
Canola or vegetable oil for frying
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely minced, as garnish
1 avocado, diced into 1/4-inch cubes, as garnish
Sour cream, as garnish
Fresh lime wedges, as garnish
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat, until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sauté until the onion is softened — about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another 1 – 2 minutes, stirring, before turning off the heat and removing the stock pot from the flame.
Transfer the onion/garlic mixture into a sturdy blender, wipe the stock pot clean, and return it to the stove.
In the blender, combine the onion/garlic mixture with the diced tomatoes and their juice, the tomato paste, the chicken stock and the adobo sauce*, if using. Puree this mixture, and then return it to the stock pot along with the shredded chicken and bring to a simmer**.
Meanwhile, heat 2 inches of canola or vegetable oil in a deep sauce pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add one of the corn tortilla strips — if it immediately sizzles, the oil is hot enough. If it doesn’t sizzle, or sinks, remove it and continue to heat the oil. Once ready, fry about 1/4 of the corn tortilla strips in the hot oil at a time, using a spider to agitate them occasionally while they cook. When they are golden brown, remove them from the oil onto a paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle with a small amount of Kosher salt. Continue to cook all the tortilla strips this way.
When ready to serve, place a handful of fried tortilla strips in the bottom of a large bowl and ladle the hot soup over them. Serve immediately and pass the cilantro, diced avocado, sour cream and lime wedges separately, to be added to the soup as desired. Season as needed with Kosher salt and black pepper.
* Note: alternatively, if you have diners at your table who don’t like spice (like our kids), omit the adobo sauce and chipotle peppers entirely, or serve your non-spice-loving guests first, and then add a spoonful or two of adobo sauce into the stock pot for the remaining portions. While it won’t simmer as long in the soup base, it will meld and bring a great blast of heat regardless of when you add it.
**Note: for an even more authentic tortilla soup, add a sprig of fresh Mexican epazote (or 1/4 teaspoon dried epazote) and simmer with the soup. Remove the sprig before serving (obviously, no need to remove anything if you’re using dried epazote). Epazote is a Mexican herb that some people liken to a cross between cilantro and oregano — floral, a little medicinal, and quite strong. It is used frequently in Mexican cooking, but less so in American adaptations.
Kid rating: four-and-a-half stars. I was pleased by how quickly this soup was embraced by our Sprouts. They both really like it, and absolutely love adding avocado and sour cream to their bowls (really, who doesn’t). We’ve made this several times now, and every time it’s a hit.
Parent rating: four stars. This is one of my favorite go-to recipes, using ingredients we often have on hand but resulting in a soup that feels vaguely exotic and unique. Faster and easier than a chicken noodle soup, this dish can be spicy or mild depending on how many and how much of the chipotle peppers and adobo sauce is used. I love the adobo taste which brings a nuanced layer to the flavor profile of this soup. The Sprouts — not so much. But for now, my husband and I can add our spice after we’ve served the girls…and maybe someday they will surprise us and dial up the heat in their bowls as well.