Dish of the Week: Sopa de Tortilla (Tortilla Soup)

From classic comfort foods to regional standouts and desserts, we'll be sharing a new recipe with you each week. Find other dishes of the week here.

With a chill in the air this week, we’re diving into a cold-weather favorite: sopa de tortilla.

Sopa de tortilla — literally translating to “tortilla soup” — is a traditional Mexican soup made with crunchy strips of fried tortilla that get soaked in a chicken broth spiced with chile peppers (think chile de arbol, pasilla chile, ancho chile or chipotle). It is also sometimes referred to as sopa azteca. Tomatoes, garlic and onions are common ingredients, with purist variations incorporating only the simple addition of fresh herbs like epazote (Mexican tea) or mint. Other variations can include corn and chicken, plus toppings such as avocado, lime, chicharrón, cheese and sour cream or Mexican crema.

The exact origins of the soup are unclear, though it seems to center around Mexico City, making its way to California sometime in the mid-20th century, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Regardless of where it was born, one thing is for sure: The comforting, aromatic soup is perfect for a chilly night (or day!).

This recipe, from chef Rick Bayless, incorporates earthy and dark dried pasilla chile and pungent epazote. If you’re feeling up to it, make your own fried tortilla strips; otherwise, a good store-bought version broken up into pieces will do.

Sopa Azteca (Tortilla Soup)

Ingredients serves 4 to 6
1 large dried pasilla (negro) chile, stemmed and seeded
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice (preferably fire-roasted)
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 medium white onion, sliced 1/4-inch thick
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 quarts chicken broth
1 large epazote sprig, if you have one
2 cups shredded, cooked rotisserie chicken
1 large ripe avocado, pitted, flesh scooped from the skin and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 1/2cups (6 ounces) shredded Mexican melting cheese (like Chihuahua, quesadilla or asadero) or Monterey Jack, brick or mild cheddar
A generous 4 cups (about 6 ounces) roughly broken tortilla chips
1/2 cup Mexican crema, sour cream or creme fraîche for garnish
1 large lime, cut into 6 wedges, for serving

Quickly toast the chile by turning it an inch or two above an open flame for a few seconds until its aroma fills the kitchen (lacking an open flame, toast it in a dry pan over medium heat, pressing it flat for a few seconds, then flipping it over and pressing it again). Break the chile into pieces and put in a blender jar along with the tomatoes with their juice (a food processor will work, though it won’t completely puree the chile).

Heat the oil in a medium (4-quart) saucepan over medium-high. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 7 minutes. Scoop up the onion and garlic with a slotted spoon, pressing them against the side of the pan to leave behind as much oil as possible, and transfer to the blender. Process until smooth.

Return the pan to medium-high heat. When quite hot, add the puree and stir nearly constantly, until thickened to the consistency of tomato paste, about 6 minutes. Add the broth and epazote, if using. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt, usually about a generous teaspoon (depending on the saltiness of the broth).

Just before serving, add the chicken to the simmering broth. Divide the avocado, cheese and tortilla chips between serving bowls. When the chicken is done, usually in about 5 minutes, ladle the soup into the bowls. Garnish with the crema. Pass the lime separately.

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