Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tortilla Soup: Great Sick Food or Greatest Sick Food?

In 2000, Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska set out to design a study to examine if and how chicken soup might actually help people suffering from the common cold. In the study he started with his wife's recipe, handed down from her Lithuanian grandmother. Results from Rennard's study suggested that chicken soup may actually help fight colds by inhibiting the movement of a particular type of white blood cell that defends against infection. Rennard's team (and other scientists who have replicated the study since then) found similar results with other chicken soup recipes as well, though they couldn't identify which ingredients were key to the soup's immuno-supportive qualities. You can see Dr. Rennard's article, Grandma's recipe and some adorable pictures of him and his wife cooking soup together at the University of Nebraska Med. Center website.

When I ended up with a cold a couple weeks ago, I had very little energy, a fridge full of forlorn, half-eaten rotisserie chickens, and a craving for spicy food. There are always a few roast chickens languishing in the fridge; most weeks, Tom takes full advantage of the Friday two for $10 deal on them at the local supermarket, eats the breast (at least most of it) and then leaves them in the fridge. I'm not too big into plain roast chicken, but I hate letting something like that go to waste (my generalized guilt about wasting food is multiplied when an animal died to become that food), so I am constantly trying to find ways to sneak this leftover chicken into things. In this case, spicy chicken soup provided the answer to all of these queries.

I used tortilla soup, a chile-spiked, chicken-based soup with origins across Mexico, as a jumping off point. I spent a while curled under a blanket with a box of tissues and the laptop reading many recipes for inspiration. This recipe might take a little while, but it's one where there's not a whole lot of active time, which means there's time to stop and take a nap between steps. You may not have all of the ingredients that I did (nor the plague of half-eaten chickens) so for many of the ingredients here, I provide a few alternatives.

In the end, what I came up with was good enough to eat for several more days without getting bored and to make again even when I wasn't sick.

Chile Chicken Soup

gluten-free, dairy-free, optionally grain-free


  • 2 half-eaten rotisserie chickens (You can use 1-2 lbs of fresh/frozen chicken and simmer in 2-3 qts of chicken stock instead of water)
  • water to cover (3-4 qts)
  • 2 tsp. light-flavored oil
  • 2 small-medium onions
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 6 Dried Anaheim chiles, toasted* (or about ¼c. paprika, see note about chiles)
  • 2 chipotle chile (or 1-2 tsp. chipotle powder, scaled to taste, or ½-1 tsp. cayenne)
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2-3 bell peppers, fire-roasted (I used a combo of red bell and cubanelle)
  • 1/2 can crushed tomatoes
  • salt to taste
  • handful cilantro
  • 2 T masa harina made into a slurry with about 1/4 cup water, stirred in close to the end (optional, adds body)
*About Chiles I used California Anaheim and chipotle peppers. California Anaheims are milder than the already fairly mild New Mexico Anaheims. I buy them in a big bag as "California Chiles" at my local international market. They add a lot of rich chile flavor with virtually no heat. That's (part of) what the chipotles are there for. Chipotles are smoke-dried jalapeño peppers and add both heat and a rich, smoky flavor. I'd actually prefer to use a blend of these with dried pasilla chiles (also called chile negro), which are somewhat spicy and have a slightly darker flavor, but I didn't have any on hand. Anchos (dried poblanos) would also be good here. Additionally, you can replace these with about ¼ cup sweet paprika and about ½ tsp. of cayenne.

    Topping suggestions:

  • tortilla chips (if you want to be fancy, fry your own tortilla strips)
  • avocado
  • lime
  • more cilantro
  • sour cream
  • shredded jack, cheddar or queso blanco cheese
  • chili sauce

Before we get started, let me introduce you to my spice grinder. This is one of my best friends in the kitchen. It's not that I'm a fresh-ground spice purist (I'm not), it just allows for so many more options: getting to make chili powder out of whichever dried peppers I like, pulverizing the dried shiitake mushrooms I like sneaking in all over the place, not having to buy both whole and ground versions of spices I use in both forms. Yes, it does say über super coffee grinder on the side. You can buy devices labeled "spice grinders" but many comparisons I've seen say you're better off with a small, blade-driver electric coffee grinder unless you are regularly grinding very large quantities. Additionally, little coffee grinders are cheap. You can reliably buy them new for under $20, commonly find them at thrift stores or tag sales for <$5, and sometimes find them for free at the dump swap shop, if you are lucky enough to have such a thing, or from someone who is moving, giving up coffee, or getting rid of it for some other reason. I used to have two, one for coffee and one for spices, but the one which had served as spice grinder for nearly a decade gave up the ghost this winter, so the coffee grinder got promoted.

On to soup, though. If you're using leftover roasted chicken(s), break apart chicken carcasses just enough so they fit in stockpot well. Leave any remaining meat intact. Add any languishing veggies (got half an onion? some sad, floppy carrots? half a shriveled beet? throw them in!). Add water to cover, simmer for 1 hour, let sit for 1 hour, then pick the meat off of the bones (it will fall off). I find that with 4 quarts of water, I end up with about 2½ quarts of stock with the evaporation that happens. Sometimes I cook the stock down a little further. If you are using fresh meat, pour about 2 qts of stock over 1-2 lbs chicken and simmer for about an hour and sit for about an hour. Either way, strain the chicken over a bowl shred the meat with your fingers or with two forks if it's too hot to handle. Add the chicken to the reserved stock or the other way around, whichever fits better, to use the stockpot to get the next part ready.

Next, roast the sweet peppers. If you have a gas range, you can put the peppers right on the burner grate over a medium flame and turn every minute or so until the outside is blistered, peeling a little, and has some lovely blackening on the skin all around. Then, place them in a covered dish so they can finish steaming from within. If you have an electric range, you can check out some of the suggestions offered here. You can also elect to simply chop up your peppers and cook them with the onions and garlic, but roasting them brings out their sweetness and adds the depth that only light charring can bring.

Dice the onions, slice the garlic, cook in light-flavored oil in stock pot over med-low heat, stirring frequently until well-browned and tasty smelling. Add non-chile spices to onion/garlic and stir until fragrant. Take a handful of cilantro, cut (but keep!) the stems. Finely chop the stems and roughly chop the leaves, then add to the onions, garlic and spices, then return chicken + broth to pot.

If using whole chiles, toast them over the stove as well. Either grab them with tongs one at a time and wave them over the flame until they get fragrant and a little puffed or toss them in a dry cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat until a similar effect is achieved. Tear them up, remove the stems and grind. I can only fit one or two in my grinder at a time, so it takes a few batches. I just dump them right into the pot as they come out.

Take stems & seeds out of the sweet peppers, if you didn't add them with the onions and garlic. Either chop them finely or run them through food processor. Add chopped peppers and crushed tomato to soup. A nice, but not essential touch here is to take a few tablespoons of masa harina (the specially-treated corn flour used for making tortillas), mix with some water and add the the soup. It gives the soup a hearty, satiny body, but it's not worth buying masa harina just for this. The soup will be plenty tasty without.

Adjust the seasoning. I usually serve with some assortment of tortilla chips, fresh cilantro, avocado cubes (don't skip these!) and lime wedges. Other people reportedly like adding sour cream or shredded mild cheese. Regardless, let diners add their own flair. As much as the tortilla bits give the soup its name, it's pretty good without them, too, if you don't have them or aren't eating corn for whatever reason. I also like to put out some chili sauce, so that diners can adjust the spiciness to their liking.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...