Friday, July 20, 2007

Las Manitas Caldo de Tortilla (Tortilla Soup)

This dish is adapted from the recipe used in the kitchen of Las Manitas Avenue Cafe in Austin. There are as many variants on this soup as there are cooks, of course, but the basics are always a chicken broth and a tomato base. There are places where you could take shortcuts, but since the dish is so simple, I think it is important that you take all of the steps properly, or your soup will lack the delicacy and finesse that it needs to have in order to be something above the ordinary. The secret to this recipe is that it uses a simple, homemade broth and that the vegetables are first roasted. This combination results in a distinctive, classically Mexican flavor that could not be achieved any other way. Many thanks to the wonderful owners, Cynthia and Lidia PĂ©rez, for permission to learn this dish in their kitchens and print this recipe.

For the Soup:

1 Gallon Homemade Chicken Broth (see recipe)
10 Fresh or stale corn tortillas, not fried, torn into halves
5 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 yellow onion, peeled
6 ripe red tomatoes
1 T. corn oil, lard, or olive oil, or a combination of them
4 sprigs cilantro
Kosher or Sea Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the garnish:

Corn Tortillas sliced into 1/4” strips and fried in lard
Ripe avocado, diced
Queso Fresco, grated

Roast the tomatoes and onions and garlic together either in a dry iron skillet or under a broiler, turning until they blacken and the tomato skins slip off easily. Peel the tomatoes and garlic and discard skins. In a mixing bowl, combine tomatoes, onions, garlic, and tortilla halves. With a hand mixer, or in the bowl of a food processor, mix well, adding enough chicken broth to acheive a smooth puree. Heat the oil in a heavy cooking pot over high heat and when it is hot, press the puree through a chinois or a strainer into the oil. Bring to a boil and cook for around 10 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste, until the flavors marry. Serve in bowls sprinkled with tortilla strips, cheese, and avocado. Some cooks sprinkle toasted dried pasilla chilis over the soup, or add a spoonful of hot salsa. Makes 8-plus servings.

Caldo de Tortilla

Mexican-style Chicken Broth

A good chicken broth is an essential element in many Mexican dishes. Today we will be using it several different ways, so it forms a basis, a starting point, and is both subtle and important as a flavoring agent in these recipes. I feel that canned or packaged “broth” is not an acceptable substitute for homemade stock, especially in these recipes, because those products tend to be full of msg, salt, false and even bizarre ingredients that do more harm than good to the final result. Part of the charm of this style of cooking is the finesse and delicacy of the dish, an end which can only be achieved by taking this simple step of creating a good broth.

I also make constant use of French-style classic stocks in my cooking, but this one has fewer ingredients and a more straightforward flavor. A classic French stock would add celery, carrot, parsley, thyme, and bay, and the meat would be roasted first to brown it. This Mexican-style broth uses fewer ingredients and leaves more room on the palette to color the final dish. When you taste this broth, it will seem very delicate, almost a non-flavor, but it marries with the other ingredients to create a glorious end result.

1-chicken, or chicken parts such as necks, backs, etc., about 2 pounds. The carcass from a roasted chicken can be added for additional flavor.
3-yellow onions, peeled and roughly chopped
3-cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1-tsp. Kosher Salt
1-gallon of fresh cold water. If your water tastes bad, use filtered or bottled water. Whatever its flavors are, they will be exaggerated by cooking.

Rinse the chicken meat and bones if fresh. Add all ingredients to the cold water in a heavy stock pot and bring to a low simmer, partially covered. Keep an eye on the broth and skim the foam that rises to the top, as this will cloud the broth unless removed. After 1 hour, remove the chicken and bone the meat out, reserving for another use. Return the carcass and bones to the pot and simmer very, very slowly for 2 hours. Cool, strain, and reserve. This may be very successfully frozen in plastic bags, measured out in 1 or 2 cup amounts.