Tortilla soup is a signature Mexican dish, and there are about as many versions of it as there are cooks. In Mexico you can find any style you like: with only vegetables, no vegetables, no chicken, a chicken leg, shredded chicken or a combination of all of these ingredients. Sometimes you’ll even find corn or tomatillos in the ingredient list. Tortilla soup can also be very spicy or rather mild, depending upon what chilies are included. In this recipe a crumbled, dried chile is sprinkled on top to control how much heat you want in your bowl.
In a medium soup pot heat the oil over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until golden brown, making sure the mixture does not burn, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cilantro and sauté another minute. Add the tomatoes and cumin and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Add the broth. Remove from the heat and puree until smooth in the pot using a hand immersion blender.
Return the soup to the heat. Add the carrot and zucchini, and simmer, partially covered, over medium low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally or until the soup is slightly thickened and the vegetables are tender. Add the chicken slices and simmer another 2 to 3 minutes or until just cooked through. Taste for seasoning.
While the soup is cooking prepare the toppings. To toast the tortilla strips: Preheat the oven to 400 F place the tortilla strips on a baking sheet, spread them evenly over the pan. Bake for 7 to 8 minutes or until crisp and beginning to brown. Reserve for the garnish.
Place the chile in a nonstick skillet over medium high heat and toast for about 2 minutes on a side or until it is fragrant and puffed but not burnt. Remove the stem and the seeds (squeeze seeds out through the top); crush the chile in a mortar or with the side of a heavy knife and reserve for the garnish.
To serve: Ladle the soup evenly into each bowl. Squirt some lime juice over the soup. Garnish with the toasted tortilla strips, cilantro, crushed chile, avocado and cheese. Serve immediately.
Try to find fresh, handmade tortillas for a more authentic flavor. Cut them as directed, and dry them out by leaving them on the counter for an hour before cooking.
While the tortillas are toasted in this recipe, you can fry them in vegetable oil for a richer result. Heat about 1/2 cup of vegetable oil in a medium skillet on medium-high heat. Drop a tortilla strip in the oil and see if it begins to fry. If so, drop handfuls of tortilla strips in the oil and fry, turning with tongs, until crisp and brown, about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
To make this vegetarian, substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth, and omit the chicken.
– Diane Rossen Worthington is an authority on new American cooking. She is the author of 18 cookbooks, including “Seriously Simple Parties,” and a James Beard Award-winning radio show host. You can contact her at www.seriouslysimple.com.