Friday, May 1, 2009

Tortilla Soup (sort of)

"I want to tell you about the pleasure, the sheer unbridled joy, of cooking without a recipe".--Nigel Slater*

It was two days before payday and, let's be honest, the kitchen was not overflowing with fresh and exciting food. Poking through my fridge, I find: leftover chicken stock (from the risotto), some odds and ends of cheese, some romaine that desperately needs to be eaten, and some sad carrots. I do have half a bag of tortilla chips. What about a taco salad? Checking the freezer, I realize I have no ground beef. What I do have is lots of frozen chicken and some frozen green chiles from when I made chile verde a few months back. What about chicken tortilla soup?

Do I have the ingredients? Who cares, it's soup. I can do whatever I want. My standby soup recipe has zucchini, lime, cilantro, and black beans. I don't have any of that. In the basement storage room I find a can of mexican-spiced chopped tomatoes. That'll do.

Most soups start with some sort of mirepiox (onions, carrots, celery), so that's where I begin, sweating a chopped onion and some garlic in some oil. I chop about a cup of the defrosted green chiles and them to the onions. While that's cooking, I recall that it's good to "bloom" spices in the oil you're using as it helps bring out the flavor (as opposed to just adding them to the water), so I throw in some chile powder, cumin, salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne.

While that's cooking, I chop up the sad carrots and throw them in the pot. I add the can of tomatoes, the leftover stock, and enough water until it looks like soup. I taste it. It tastes a little flat, so I add a little chicken bullion. The tomatoes add an unpleasant, "tinny" taste, so I add a little sugar. I taste it again. That's better.

I simmer until the carrots are tender, and taste again. It's pretty spicy, so I add a small can of sweet corn for contrast. Now for the "tortilla" part. I crush a couple of handfuls of tortilla chips and add them to the soup. This thickens the soup as well as adding that distinct flavor. Time to add some chicken. I season boneless, skinless chicken thighs and sear them in my non-stick pan. Cool, cube, and add to pot.
I taste again, adjust seasonings, and serve over tortilla chips and garnish with cheese and sour cream. I begin to feel the joy.

*Nigel Slater is one of my favorite food writers, and I echo his philosophy about instinctive cooking:

"Nigel is not a chef. His food is understated, straightforward home cooking that is easy to accomplish, without a trace of what he affectionately calls ‘cheffery’. He is not fond of fussy food and prefers simple suppers made with care and thought. He believes that making something good to eat for your self or for others can lift the spirits in the way little else can. “There is something quietly civilizing about sharing a meal with other people. The simple act of making someone something to eat, even a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, has a many-layered meaning. It suggests an act of protection and caring, of generosity and intimacy. It is in itself a sign of respect.”

One of my favorite cookbooks: Appetite, Nigel Slater contains few recipes but rather the philosophy of eating and cooking pleasureably, without strictness or stuffiness. Curl up and read it.

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