Introduction: Not for the Faint of Heart Tortilla Soup

About: After spending 2 years traveling my wife and I have lived in 8 different cities across the United States. Among other things we've had the privileged of visiting nearly half of the national parks in the US. …

I started developing this soup while my wife and I were living in Hawaii.  Food is expensive out there, and I was looking for a way to get the full value out of our scraps and leftovers.  Drippings, trimmings, and bones from meat, that extra tomato paste, tomato soup, or salsa, and past-their-prime vegetables go into the pot, and a fantastic soup comes out.  The basic recipe creates a rich, hardy, spicy broth that makes a perfect foundation that can be garnished and customized to your heart’s content.

Step 1: Disclaimer

This recipe is not for the faint of heart.  The majority of my measurements are “to taste,” my techniques are questionable, and the process will DESTROY your kitchen.  And at no point in the cooking process does this soup look even remotely appetizing.  Not until you put it in a bowl and sprinkle on some cheese, dollop on some sour cream, and add a few slices of avocado does it look like the delicious meal that it is.

Step 2: Materials

Big cooking pot
Bowl equal to or larger than the pot
Shinwa or other fine sieve/strainer
Cutting board
Spoon for stirring and tasting

Additional Materials for Garnishes:
Cheese Grater
Pot or pan for frying
Vegetable oil
Bowl and paper towel for draining oil

Step 3: Ingredients

Beef or chicken trimmings/scraps/drippings/bones
Tomato soup/paste/salsa
Large onion (chopped)
Green pepper or your favorite kind of chili pepper (1/3 to a whole pepper, chopped)
Garlic (chopped)
Corn tortillas (some minced, some slivered)
Chili Powder

Beef or chicken (sliced or shredded)
Avocado (sliced)
Cheese (cheddar, colby, or pepper jack, shredded)
Cilantro (chopped)
Onions (white or green, chopped)
Tortilla “Crunchies”
Sour Cream

Step 4: Simmering

Course chop the onion, pepper, and garlic.  Place chopped ingredients into large pot with the meat scraps and whatever tomato ingredient you chose.  About the only ingredient you can overdo in this recipe is the tomatoes.  As a basic rule, you should have substantially more onion than you have tomatoes.  Add all of the dry seasonings.  I find that the quality of the end product is directly proportional to the volume of cumin added.  Add water to cover all of the ingredients.  Place the pot over high heat until it comes to a boil, then cover and simmer on low for at least 2 hours.  Taste the broth periodically throughout this process and add more seasonings as necessary.

Step 5: Mess Making

Now comes the messy part.  Set up the strainer in the large bowl in the kitchen sink. Remove the pot from the stove, pick out and discard any bones.  Slowly pour the broth from the pot, through the strainer, and into the bowl.  The strainer will eventually become clogged with solids, at which point you should use the spatula to stir and press as much of the solids through the strainer as possible.  Essentially you are pureeing and homogenizing the solids into the broth.  Repeat this process until all of the broth is in the bowl, and you have a small, tough wad of meat scraps and gristle in the strainer.  You can discard whatever’s left in the strainer, and return the broth to the pot.  If you’re really OCD (like I am) then you can run the broth through the strainer again as you pour it back into the pot.

Step 6: Simmering Continued

Return the broth to simmering on the stove.  Dice 3-6 corn tortillas (depending on how much broth you’ve created).  Add the diced tortillas to the simmering broth and allow to cook for at least 30 minutes.  Stir occasionally (a wire whisk may be helpful here) so the tortillas don’t cook to the bottom of the pan.  This is also a good opportunity to taste the broth and add more seasonings as necessary.

Step 7: Mess Making Continued

Now back to making a mess.  Set up the strainer in the bowl in the sink like you did before, and run the broth through the strainer again.  You’ll probably wind up with a gooey lump of tortilla in the strainer.  Just force if through the strainer with the spatula.  Once again, if you’re really concerned about getting a smooth, homogeneous broth, you can run it through the strainer one more time.  At this point the broth is ready to be served, but it really takes garnishes to make it great.

Step 8: Garnishes

The majority of the garnishes are self-explanatory:
Avocado (sliced)
Cheese (cheddar, colby, or pepper jack, shredded)
Cilantro (chopped)
Onions (white or green, chopped)
Sour Cream

Step 9: Garnishes Continued

A few garnishes need a bit more explanation:

Tortilla “Crunchies”:
Heat vegetable oil in a pan over medium high heat.  Cut several corn tortillas into 1.5 inch long strips, and drop one slice into the oil as a temperature tester.  When the first strip bubbles and floats, add the rest of the tortilla strips.  Allow the strips to crisp, pull them out of the oil with the tongs, and place them in a bowl lined with paper towel.  Shake a little bit of salt over the crunchies while tossing them in the bowl to remove excess oil.

Beef or chicken:
Depending on what you used to create the soup stock, rub or marinade some chicken breasts or your favorite cut of beef in your favorite Mexican seasonings and fry it up, or better yet grill it.  Then slice or shred the meat to sprinkle over the soup.

Step 10: Putting It All Together

This is where this recipe stops wrecking your kitchen and starts looking like a fantastic dinner.  You can combine the soup with the garnishes before serving, or you can put all the garnishes on the table, give everyone a bowl of plain soup, and allow people to customize their own meal.  I don’t have any specific side dish recommendations (the soup is pretty filling all on its own), and someone will have to recommend a good wine pairing.  Sangria, perhaps?

Step 11: Notes

Allergies and other dietary requirements:
Since you control everything that goes into this recipe, it’s easy to accommodate any allergies or other special requirements you may have.  I would even venture to guess that the recipe is gluten free without any modifications to what I’ve posted here.  And while I haven’t tried it, you may even be able to make a vegetarian version if you want to puree some combination of rice, lentils, or beans (refried beans?) to replace the meat.  Vegetarians may also consider adding a dash of a mild flavored vegetable or nut oil.

This recipe is anything but low fat.  From broth to garnishes it’s packed with calories.  If you want to reduce the calorie content you can skim off the fat from the surface of the broth at any point prior to boiling the tortillas.  But once the tortillas are thoroughly mixed in, the fat goes into suspension in the thickened broth and you’ve lost your opportunity. 

Beyond that, I’ve never gone to the effort of calculating any of the other nutritional values like I did with versions 1.0, 2.0, and 3.3 of my backpacking bars.  But I would have to guess that since the broth consists of multiple pureed vegetables and boiled meat it’s got to have at least some protein, vitamin, and mineral content.

The primary flavor components are cumin, onion/garlic, and that unique taste of corn tortillas.  The tomatoes and the meat serve as a hearty background to these flavors.  Taste the soup frequently at every step along the way and add whatever you think is lacking to create that iconic Mexican flavor profile.  And as noted previously, the quality of the soup is directly proportional to the amount of cumin you add.

While the soup itself is intended to use up scraps and leftovers, if your garnishes run out before the soup does, the broth makes an excellent stand-in for enchilada sauce to pour over something like wet burritos.  Sometimes I make extra soup with exactly that intention.  Tortilla soup one day, wet burritos the next.