Written by Katherine Sasser.
Photos by Elizabeth McLaurin.
There was a season in my life as a home cook when I was very into doing things the “right” way. The right way, in my opinion, was usually also the hard, long, arduous way. Sure, I wanted to learn how to make the best version of whatever it was I was cooking, but there was also a smidge of moral superiority mixed in for good measure.
I poured over publications and recipes looking for versions that asked the most of me, convinced that the extra steps and work would pay off in the end result. Pre-packed, canned, or frozen ingredients were beneath me and only for people who didn’t really know how to cook. Truthfully, nine times out of ten, the long way would yield results that expressed the time and love put into making them. I felt like I was getting exactly what I wanted.
Making things from scratch slowly and carefully does often produce crazy good flavor. All it takes is to make homemade chicken stock once and you can quickly taste the chasm between the stovetop version and the canned grocery store version. There are no equal substitutions for most things we make from scratch. Hence, the sense of culinary moral superiority in my early years.
This approach, thinking I was doing things the “right” way, and its narrow-minded version of culinary morality, turned me into an excellent home cook. Granted, I wasn’t the most gracious home cook, taking a no-exceptions approach with myself and others, but I did become very good at cooking. I look back at that season and feel equal parts impressed and embarrassed. That is the joy of maturity. We learn to be more gracious with ourselves and others and hopefully leave behind the immature hard stances of our youth.
Meanwhile, back in the land of doing things the “right” way, I learned to love the process. When I would make tortilla soup, I would revel in the hours spent charring peppers, roasting tomatoes, boiling chilies, making stock from scratch, and frying tortilla strips into homemade chips. I learned to make a mean bowl of tortilla soup. Sure, it took all day, but I was doing it the right way, right?
Then, I started having children, and the whole game changed.
I am a mother of four, currently ranging in age from 10 to 16. When you have four babies in six years, there is a season of motherhood that I lovingly refer to as “being in the trenches.” It is purely a survival game for a few years, and I was doing the best I could to keep everyone fed, bathed, clothed, and out of immediate danger.
Nap time became my only time to prep dinner. Once everyone woke up, the game was over. I had to be present for them which meant dinner needed to be ready to heat and eat by the time the first one woke up.
Enter Texas Tortilla Soup, the quick version.
The origin story and inspiration for this recipe comes from Rebecca Rather’s amazing cookbook, Pastry Queen. Her Texas Tortilla Soup is the best I have ever found. It is involved, in the most satisfying way possible. I love taking my time with it, enjoying each step. But in the land of sippy cups and diapers, Rebecca’s tortilla soup became a laughably impossible endeavor. The “right” way to make tortilla soup would have to wait. I decided to give her recipe a motherhood-friendly face lift and use her version as inspiration for a dinner that I could get quickly prepare and be sure to enjoy.
The recipe I am sharing with you today is the fruit of my labors, and I think you will find that even though it is full of short-cut ingredients (no roasting of tomatoes required!), the finished flavor stands tall and demands a second helping.
The secret is layering flavors, using more than one kind of chile powder, and making good use of fire-roasted canned tomatoes. As with most soups and stews, the magic really happens if you prepare this one day, refrigerate it overnight, and then eat it the next day. The flavors grow and meld together into something even more amazing than the original.
Today I find myself with more free time (we are out of the trenches and firmly planted in the land of adolescence and teenage drivers), but even with the margin to make the original version, I still find myself reaching for this recipe time and time again. There is something satisfying about finding a new “right” way to do things.
Texas Tortilla Soup
This recipe is meant to make smart work of short-cut ingredients. It is even better the next day.
for the soup…
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium-sized yellow onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 cups chicken stock
1 (15-ounce) can peeled diced tomatoes
3 (15-ounce) cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
24 ounces cooked chicken
8 ounces frozen corn
chopped fresh cilantro
shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed, 4-quart soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and sauté until the vegetables become soft. This may take 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir in the garlic, chile powder, ancho chile powder, and cumin and cook for 1 minute.
Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, decrease the heat, and simmer about 15 minutes.
While the soup is simmering, process all the canned tomatoes with their juices. There are several ways to do this. You can use a food processor, an immersion blender, or a standard blender. You need the tomatoes to be completely pureed and liquified.
After the soup has simmered for 15 minutes, add the pureed tomato mixture to the pot. Stir in 3 teaspoons Kosher salt, and bring back up to a simmer. Simmer on medium-low heat, covered, for about one hour.
Add the chicken and the corn, and simmer for five minutes until the corn is heated through. Ladle into bowls and garnish as desired.