A great tortilla soup can be a revelation -- rich with an intriguing roasted-corn flavor, vibrant with color and toasty, tantalizing aromas.
Classic tortilla soup, the way you'd find it in Mexico City, is simply good chicken broth combined with roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic, chiles and tortillas, cut into strips and fried. It's wonderfully satisfying, "a sort of soul food soup," as Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy puts it.
In California, it's often made with a tomato base thickened with ground tortillas, but there are variations, such as a bean soup enriched with crunchy strips of fried tortillas.
"To be really authentic, the soup should have only a little white onion, raw not cooked, blended with roasted tomato," says Kennedy, speaking from her home near Zitacuaro in the state of Michoacan.
The blend is fried, "to intensify the flavor," she says. "Then it goes into the broth." In addition to chile and tortillas, the soup ought to include epazote. "A tortilla soup without epazote is not worth eating, to my mind. But I'm a purist," she says.
Oddly, no one knows where tortilla soup came from, not even Kennedy. "It's certainly not all over Mexico," she says. "It's in the center, around Mexico City, the home of tortilla soup."
Although Dan Strehl, culinary historian and translator of "Encarnacion's Kitchen" (the 2003 cookbook drawn from Encarnacion Pinedo's 1898 California cookbook "El Cocinero Espanol") can't pinpoint the arrival of tortilla soup in California, it had certainly made its way north by the mid 20th century. It appears in "Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes," published in San Francisco in 1944. That recipe, by Elena Zelayeta, doyenne of Mexican cooking in California, is a simple combination of broth, tomato puree and tortilla strips, to which she added mint leaves.
In Southern California, tortilla soup has been on the menu at 80-year-old Ojai Valley Inn longer than anyone on the staff can remember; it started to appear in haute versions in other restaurants in the 1980s, when regional Southwestern flavors were championed by chefs such as John Sedlar.
Today, compelling tortilla soups can be found at several Los Angeles Mexican restaurants. Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Mexicana in Bell riff on a classic central Mexican version by pureeing guajillo chiles along with tomatoes. They grind fried tortillas with the mixture too, which amplifies the corn flavor.
The version served by Carlos Haro of Casablanca Restaurant in Venice is adapted from a recipe by cookbook author Alicia Gironella De'Angeli of Mexico City, whom he engaged as a guest chef in the 1980s.
Roasted vegetables and chicken stock, lightly thickened with beans, is the base, then chopped cilantro, fried tortilla strips and raw onion are added to the broth, along with a garnish of cool queso fresco and crunchy roasted chiles.
Cafe Verde in Pasadena has a terrific rendition composed of ground tortillas and roasted vegetables. It's spicy with chile and topped with crisp tortilla strips and cool strands of sour cream.
Kennedy includes an unusual version -- sopa de bolitas de tortillas (tortilla ball soup) in her 2000 book, "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico."
Tortillas are dried, then turned into crumbs in a blender and mixed with cotija cheese, milk and egg. Formed into small balls and fried, they're briefly simmered in the broth they're presented in. They're a bit like a hush puppy to bite into, but with their own unique flavor.
"Oh, God, I love it," says Kennedy. We do too.
Cafe Verde tortilla soup
Total time: 55 minutes
Note: From Cafe Verde in Pasadena. Look for ground dried ancho chiles (sometimes labeled pasillo) in the spice section of selected markets, especially Latino markets.
2 Roma tomatoes
1/2 large white onion, peeled
6 whole corn tortillas, plus 2 more cut into thin strips and fried for garnish
2 dried ancho chiles
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
2 cups tomato juice
1 cup vegetable stock, or more to taste
1 quart water
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground dried ancho chiles, or more to taste
1/2 cup sour cream
1. In batches, on a grill or rack (such as a cooling rack) over an open stovetop flame, roast the tomatoes, onion and whole tortillas until lightly spotted with brown, then roast the chiles for a few seconds (after which they'll start to burn). Break the tortillas into pieces.
2. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the garlic cloves and saute over medium-low heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Add the onion, chiles, tortilla pieces, bay leaf and cilantro. Cook for 10 minutes.
3. Add the tomato juice, stock and water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes.
4. Remove from the heat and, using a blending wand or blender, puree the mixture, in batches if necessary, until smooth. Strain the mixture through a sieve, pressing on the solids; discard the solids.
5. Return the soup to the cleaned pan and add salt, white pepper and ground chile. Rewarm the soup; if it seems too thick, stir in additional stock or water. Garnish with fried tortilla strips and sour cream.
Each serving: 272 calories; 6 grams protein; 33 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 13 mg. cholesterol; 1,197 mg. sodium.
Black bean tortilla soup
Total time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Note: From Casablanca Restaurant in Venice. The beans are not soaked before cooking.
1 1/4 cups ( 1/2 pound) rinsed dried black beans (not soaked)
1 sprig epazote, optional
2 dried ancho chiles
3 garlic cloves
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 Roma tomato
6 cups chicken stock, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 corn tortillas
Oil for frying
1 cup cilantro leaves
12 ounces queso fresco, crumbled
1. Put the beans in a large pot and add 2 quarts water, one-half teaspoon salt and the epazote, if using. Bring to a boil, cover almost completely and simmer until the beans are tender, about 1 hour.
2. In batches, puree the beans with 4 cups of the cooking liquid in a blender. Strain; discard the bean skins.
3. Roast the chiles on a grill just until fragrant, a few seconds. Do not allow them to burn (they burn rapidly). Remove and set aside for garnish. Roast the garlic, one onion half and the tomato until spotted with brown. Peel and core the tomato and puree in a blender with the garlic, onion and 1 1/2 cups of the chicken stock.
4. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the tomato puree and cook for 5 minutes.
5. Add the remaining chicken stock, bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes until slightly reduced. Add the strained black bean puree. Simmer for 45 minutes, skimming the surface occasionally. Season with 1 teaspoon salt.
6. Cut the tortillas in half and cut each half into thin strips. Heat one-half inch oil in a small skillet, add the tortilla pieces a few at a time and fry, turning at least once, for about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
7. Cut the chiles into one-eighth-inch-thick strips and remove the seeds. Coarsely chop the cilantro and finely dice the remaining onion half.
8. To serve, add tortilla strips, cilantro and onions to each bowl of soup. Garnish each with a few rings of ancho chile and queso fresco.
Each serving: 354 calories; 18 grams protein; 38 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 19 mg. cholesterol; 326 mg. sodium.
Sopa de bolitas de tortilla (tortilla ball soup)
Total time: 1 hour plus overnight drying time, chilling time
Note: Adapted from "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico" by Diana Kennedy. Leave tortillas out on a rack overnight to dry out. The crisper they are, the easier to blend into fine crumbs.
4 Roma tomatoes, broiled on an ungreased broiler pan about 4 minutes, until soft with brown spots
1/4 cup coarsely chopped white onion
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 cups chicken broth
1 sprig epazote
1. In a blender, puree the tomatoes, onion and garlic to a smooth sauce. Place the oil in a large saucepan and add the tomato mixture. Cook about 5 minutes, until the sauce has reduced somewhat.
2. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the epazote during the last minute of cooking. Adjust the seasoning.
Dumplings and assembly
12 stale corn tortillas, dried
1/2 cup hot whole milk
1/2 cup finely grated cotija cheese
1 egg, well beaten
1/4 cup cold whole milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
6 cups tomato-chicken broth
1/3 cup sour cream thinned with 1 teaspoon milk
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro or parsley
1. Break the tortillas into small pieces and grind to fine crumbs in the blender in batches. You should have about 1 1/2 cups of crumbs.
2. Place the crumbs in a bowl and add the hot milk, cheese, egg and salt. Knead the dough well with your fingers; the mixture will be crumbly. Set it aside for several hours or refrigerate overnight to allow the tortilla particles to soften.
3. Again knead the dough well, adding the cold milk. Form the dough into one long piece. Divide this into 12 pieces and divide each piece in half. Lightly moisten your hands and roll the 24 pieces into balls about 1 inch in diameter.
4. Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the balls in batches very gently, turning them from time to time until they are golden brown, about 5 minutes. Drain well on paper towels.
5. Reheat the broth. Add the tortilla balls and bring the broth to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer about 2 minutes. Serve in individual bowls, allowing four balls per serving. Top each with a spoonful of the sour cream and some chopped cilantro.
Each serving: 293 calories; 10 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 55 mg. cholesterol; 584 mg. sodium.