10.08.2013

Chicken Tortilla Soup

chicken tortilla soup
Are you curious to know who is at Walgreens at 4:00 a.m.?

Oh, never crossed your mind?

Well, now that I've peaked your interest I'll tell you.  There's a woman unusually fresh looking buying an extra large dr. pepper, 5 hour energy and a pack of cigarettes. Eek.

There's a man in casual business attire wafting in a huge cloud of cologne, checking out the Redbox.  He seemed very determined. Who doesn't need to know the latest dvd releases at 4 am on a Thursday morning. errr.

What does this have to with tortilla soup?
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Absolutely nothing... besides the fact that I came upon this scene when I woke up at 4:00 am to a very fussy baby.  In my blurred state using the new flashlight feature on the iphone (love that), I fumbled around in the nursery trying to find a diaper.  None in the drawer... none in the overflow drawer... none in the storage under the crib.

What?! It's 4 a.m. and we ran out of diapers for the first time?

Thank the Lord for 24 hour Walgreens... especially those that you can see from your driveway.

Again, what does this have to do with tortilla soup you ask?  Still nothing... except for the fact that it is now 5 am and I'm wide awake and suddenly I have the time to tell you about this tortilla soup I made last weekend.

It's hearty, but light.  Packed with flavor and a tiny bit spicy.  It's meant for football watching Saturdays or stormy Sunday night suppers.  It is comfort in a bowl and loves being packed with crunchy-salty homemade corn tortilla strips, mounds of monterey jack cheese and smooth slices of avocado.

There a few steps to this one, which might also make it the perfect soup to whip up at 5 am when you are wide awake and you have already cleaned out your email inbox.  Don't be fooled though... I'm not making soup at 5 am... I'm just telling you about it.

While you will need a little time to make this soup, you can feed an army when you are finished or stock your freezer for another occasion.  It's delicious and totally worth it.

Let's talk about the process...

This recipe calls for grated onion.  Get out your cheese grater and get ready for an emotional, heart wrenching experience.  Okay, maybe not heart wrenching but as you grate this onion and open up every little porous pocket it has, you might find yourself in a pool of tears.  Everyone needs a good cry sometimes... just go with it.
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I prefer to close my eyes, which only lessens the tears... it does not completely stop them.  But please, I beg you, open your eyes before you get to the end of the onion! No one needs bloody fingertips in their tortilla soup... and this could also cause real tears, which are sure to flow hard after you have opened up your tear ducts thanks to the onion.

If you leave a little onion at the end, just discard it or dice it up with a knife.
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Once you start sauteeing your corn tortillas in garlic and cilantro, you will immediately be thrilled that you started out on this adventure.
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Your house will immediately start to smell like a 90-year-old mexican grandmother lives there and does nothing, but cook up her tried and true family recipes all day long. Stir in all of your other ingredients and get things boiling.
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Now your soup is ready to simmer and you are ready to make your fajita chicken.
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Ah, and to my new favorite part. I have simply repeated the process we chatted about last week for skillet chicken, but in case you missed it, I'll go into the details again.

First, let's talk about the boneless skinless breast itself. They come in so many sizes these days... Sometimes I feel like they might have killed the hulk hogan of chickens by the size of the breast, but I try not dwell on the slaughtering of my dinner.
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Go ahead and slice off anything that doesn't look like straight meat.  The last thing I want when I'm biting into a piece of chicken is a tough piece or a little red spot.  Take off any white veins or red spots.
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If you get one of these honkers, we first want to slice it in half so that you have two thinner pieces of meat. skillet chicken1If your is just a little on the fat side, but not this thick, you can pound it just a little bit instead of slicing it in half.
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Next, slice it into strips. 
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Now we are ready to marinate. I have one word for you... 
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Liquid smoke!
Seriously, do you know about this stuff?
It has this hickory, smoky, roasting-all-day flavor that you just can't find anywhere else.  Let's be honest, I easily skip an ingredient or two sometimes in a marinade if I don't have it and surely I'm not the only one out there.  Do what you got to do, but do not miss this one.  You are going to want to have it in your back pocket for pretty much any meat you make from now so get yourself a bottle.  Okay, maybe not in your back pocket... get one drop of this stuff on your pants or anywhere and you might smell like a campfire for the next week and a half.

Oh, and don't skip the lime juice either.  Limey, hickory chicken...mmmm.
liquid smoke
Next favorite part of this dish. All of that can be done ahead of time and when you are ready to cook, this will come together in less than five minutes while your soup is simmering.

Grab a skillet... Make that a good, cast iron skillet frying pan. I'm sure it can be done in a subsequent pan, but I believe there's a good sear and flavor that can only be found in the almighty frying pan. Add 1 tablespoon of canola oil to the pan and heat for one to two minutes on high heat... or medium high heat if you have one of those new fancy stoves that might melt your pan if you are not careful.

This is where the canola oil or corn oil is important because it has a high smoke point. Dainty olive oil will just not do it in this instance. I hear peanut oil or grapeseed oil will also do the trick, but I can only swear by canola or corn. Drain your chicken on a paper towel so that your chicken is not sitting in a pool or marinade and sprinkle with salt.
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It doesn't have to be completely dry, but this will help you get a good sear on the meat. Add chicken to the hot skillet in a single layer. Depending on how much you are cooking, you will probably have to work in batches, but resist the urge to cook all the meat in one batch... you want each piece to get a nice sear on it.  Be careful not to burn yourself because the oil might be crackling. Allow to cook without moving for about a minute. When you pieces start to look a little brown, flip them over and let sear one to two minutes on the other side.  I use tongs and try to get each piece flipped, working quickly because these thin pieces will cook quickly.
skillet chicken
Once seared on the second side, wrap in aluminum foil and allow to rest for five minutes.  Continue cooking the rest of your meat and add to the foil as each batch finishes.

A few notes about my process:
Slicing the chicken pre-marinade: Some recipes out the have you marinade the whole breast and cook it before slicing.  While it makes the process of searing each piece a little more fussy, I like that all sides of the slices were able to marinate giving you the most flavor possible.

Once your chicken is cooled, chop it up into nice bite size pieces.
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After your soup has simmered, let's skim the fat off of the top.  See that spotty, clearish, red layer on top of the soup?
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That is fat that is separating from the soup and you can skim that off the top. It looks like grease.  It definitely won't kill you, but soup is more appetizing without that layer.
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Toppings time!

I never knew that those crispy fried strips of corn tortilla could possibly be the easiest thing in the world to make.  First, slice your corn tortillas in half and then cut every half inch in the other direction so that you are left with strips that are half the length of the tortilla (this is when pictures come in handy because I'm not even sure that explanation made sense to me... see below).
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Heat a thin layer of corn oil over medium high heat in your frying pan (just give it a good wipe down after you are done making your chicken).  Test your heat by dropping one little strip of tortilla into the oil.  You want it to lightly sizzle.  If nothing happens, your oil is not hot enough... if it crackles loudly and turns your tortilla brown quickly, your oil is too hot.

Once you have a good sizzling temperature, toss in your tortilla strips.
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Allow to fry two to three minutes and stir them gently.  Once they are golden brown, about five to seven minutes total,  remove to a paper towel and allow to drain. This takes a little bit of practice and I have definitely had batches that I fried till the point of pure burnt crispiness.  Sometimes I fry just one tortilla first to get the hang of it.   When the strips are nice and golden, remove to a paper towel to drain and sprinkle with salt while still hot.

Fried tortilla strips that have been cooled can be stored in an airtight container for up to five days.
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Now serve up that delicious soup with avocado chunks, monterey or cheddar cheese and a dollop of sour cream.  Lime wedges and chopped cilantro make for nice extra toppings if you have some on hand.
chicken tortilla soup

From my little kitchen to yours... Enjoy. 

Chicken Tortilla Soup
Makes 12 servings
A note about the ingredient list:  Do not be overwhelmed by the long list.  A lot of the ingredients are listed twice because they are used in the marinade and soup.  Most ingredients are pantry items. You are going to have to trust me on this one and make the soup just once to see how easy it really is. 

A note about the grated onion:  If you do not want to grate the onion, you can also finely dice it with a knife.  But sometimes it feels great to get an arm workout while cooking.  Grating an entire onion means you can skip the gym for the day. 

Ingredients
For the Soup
3 tablespoons corn oil
6 corn tortillas, coarsely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 medium white onion, grated (about 1 cup, give or take a ¼ of a cup)
2 cans (10 oz. can) Rotel tomatoes and green chiles, mild
1 can (15 oz. can) black beans, drained
12 oz frozen corn
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
3 whole bay leaves
4 tablespoons canned tomato paste
3 quarts (12 cups or 96 oz) chicken stock
1 quart (4 cups) water
salt and pepper

For the chicken
1 ½ lbs boneless skinless chicken breast
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

For the toppings
6 corn tortillas, cut into strips and fried
2 avocados, pitted and sliced
2 cups Monterey jack or Cheddar cheese
sour cream
chopped cilantro and lime wedges (optional)

Step by Step
Marinate the chicken.  Chicken breasts come in different sizes. If you have chicken breasts that are around a half pound each or more, you will want to slice them in half horizontally, so that the center thickness is around 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch thick. 

Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a glass or plastic container. Add the chicken, mix well, cover and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour. (You can marinate them in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours, but remove them an hour before cooking so that they can come closer to room temp.)

Start the soup.  Heat corn oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Saute tortillas with garlic, onion and cilantro over medium heat until tortillas are soft, about 5 minutes.

Add cumin, chili powder, bay leaves, 3 teaspoons of salt, Rotel, black beans, corn and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered.  Skim fat from surface, if necessary.

While the soup is simmering, make the chicken and corn tortilla strips. 

To make the chicken, remove it from the marinade. Wipe off most of the marinade and sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt.

Heat a large cast iron frying pan on high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add a tablespoon of canola oil (or other high smoke point oil) to the pan. As soon as the oil begins to smoke, lay the chicken slices in the pan. Lay pieces in the pan in one layer, trying not to crowd the pan so that the chicken can sear.  Let the chicken cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes, until you have a good sear. Once seared well on one side, turn the pieces over and cook for another 1-2 minutes until well seared on the second side.

Once seared on the second side, remove to a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil to rest for 5 minutes. If you want to test for doneness, cut into one piece with the tip of a sharp knife. It should be just done, if not, you can put it back in the hot pan for a minute or two.

To make the corn tortilla strips, wipe out the cast iron skillet with a paper towel. Heat a thin layer of corn oil over medium high heat. Lightly fry tortilla strips in oil.  Remove strips when they are golden brown and allow to drain on a paper towel to remove excess oil.  Lightly sprinkle with salt and allow to cool.

Back to the soup… check the taste and add additional seasoning if needed.  Add extra salt to taste or add chili powder for extra spice.  Stir and allow to simmer for another 30 minutes.  Turn off the heat, remove the bay leaves and allow the soup to sit for 20 to 30 minutes. 

Serve soup with chunks of avocado, Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese, sour cream, crispy corn tortilla strips and chopped cilantro and lime wedges.

Refrigerate leftover soup in an airtight container for up to four days.   

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