Falsetti: Tortilla soup a filling meal you can personalize
After you reach a certain age, no one finds it strange that you are talking to a package of tortillas in the supermarket.
Gluten free, low cholesterol — “Well, duh!”
Made from scratch, tortillas have three ingredients: corn, water and lime. The lime (calcium hydroxide) is used in nixtamalization, a process whereby the corn is soaked in an alkaloid solution to soften the hulls. The process increases the nutritional value, flavor and aroma of the corn.
Tortillas had been eaten in Mexico long before Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived. They were what made the Aztec empire thrive despite having a dearth of animal protein. The Spanish colonizers introduced wheat to Mexico because they thought corn was unfit for human consumption. The Aztecs rejected this idea, and to this day corn tortillas are the quintessential staple of the Mexican diet.
Freshly made, hot off the comal (flat griddle), tortillas are a gourmet delight. Moist and tasting of fresh sweet corn, consuming them in quantity is not a problem. Over time, though, their appeal diminishes exponentially.
Fortunately, stale tortillas lend themselves to many dishes. A little oil and a little sauce transport them to a different realm.
Tortilla soup is one of the best examples of this makeover. Warm and comforting, it is a midwinter godsend. Loaded with toppings, it is a meal in itself.
Unless you make your own, store-bought tortillas are the only available option here in Central Pennsylvania. After trying many brands, I have found Mission corn tortillas to be the best alternative. If you don’t have any that are sufficiently stale, leaving them out on the counter for a few hours will speed up the tortilla frying process.
For the soup
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 jalapeño, seeds removed, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
11/2 teaspoons chile powder
1 or 2 chipotles in adobo, finely chopped (depending on how hot you like it)
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, or 4 cups peeled and chopped fresh tomato
4 cups vegetable broth + 2 cups water
2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
For the tortillas
1/2 cup vegetable oil
10 corn tortillas, cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 avocado, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Crumbled queso fresco or shredded Cheddar or Monterey jack
Red or yellow onion, finely chopped
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and jalapeño and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the chile powder and stir to coat. Cook a minute or two to toast the spices, then add the chipotles and tomatoes, crushing them with the back of a spoon. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture begins to thicken.
Add the vegetable broth, corn and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer covered, about 30 minutes.
For the tortillas, heat the oil in a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed frying pan. Working in batches, fry the tortilla strips until light golden brown and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Add more oil if necessary. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.
Add the cilantro and about 3/4 of the tortilla strips into the broth. Simmer for five minutes. Divide soup among bowls and top with the remaining fried tortilla strips and the toppings of your choice.
— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at email@example.com.