I savor Mexican tortilla soup the way I imagine other people respond to chicken noodle soup or beef stew. That is to say it is comfort food in the purest sense for me, and I find I can eat it for days on end without boredom. Its beauty lies in the aromatic broth which is layered with different levels of smoke, heat and flavor that chilies, spices and vegetables all contribute to the pot. Tender cubes of chicken further enrich the stock, and a hearty dose of fresh lime juice at the end adds bright acidity to balance things out. Happily, the layering of flavor doesn’t end there. As a garnish, each bowl of this richly scented soup is piled with slices of buttery avocado, piquant sprigs of cilantro, diced fresh tomato and plenty of salty, fried tortilla bits. Mixed in, these ingredients not only round out the final seasoning, but also add savory texture to each bite. I find a bowlful deeply satisfying and am quite content when there is large batch on hand.
If it were not for an unclaimed bowl of cooked red lentils in the fridge (leftover from a culinary endeavor gone awry) I would have declared my recipe for tortilla soup perfect as is. But feeling pressured to use up the lentils before they were no good to anyone, I figured it would be fairly harmless to stir them into my favorite pot of soup. There was no doubt that the resulting version would be heartier, but what surprised me was how well the red lentils complimented the flavor profile of the soup. Adding a sweet earthiness in taste and providing a texture redolent of soft tortillas, this revision took my beloved recipe to a whole new level. What’s more, I have now discovered a vegetarian version that’s equally flavorsome and robust in body, should I choose to eliminate the chicken and use purely vegetable broth for the base.
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, cut into a small dice
1 poblano pepper, cut into a small dice
1 jalapeno pepper, cut into a small dice
2 carrots, peeled and cut into a small dice
2 celery stalks, trimmed and cut into a small dice
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1.5 Tbsp ground cumin
1.5 Tbsp ground coriander
1.5 Tbsp smoked paprika
1.5 Tbsp ancho or chipotle chili powder
1 Tbsp tomato paste
2 quarts of chicken stock
4 chicken breasts, raw and trimmed into 1-2 inch cubes
2 C cooked red lentils
juice of two limes
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
Handful of cilantro sprigs on stem, or 2 Tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1 C chopped fresh tomatoes
1 ripe avocado, cut into small dice
1 C fried, salted tortilla strips*
*To make the tortilla strips, cut 5 fresh tortillas into thin strips then fry them in a small pot of canola oil (brought to 350 degrees) until golden brown. Drain the strips on a plate lined with paper towels and season with salt while they are still hot.
Heat a large soup pot over medium heat then add the olive oil. Sauté the onion, peppers, carrot and celery until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute before adding the cumin, coriander, paprika and chili powder. Cook for 30 seconds before adding the tomato paste, then cook for another minute. Add the chicken stock and chicken pieces and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes, then add the lentils and lime juice. Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, garnish each bowl with a small mound of tomatoes, avocadoes, tortilla strips and cilantro.