Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tortilla Soup with summer squash

I have just returned from Southern California and I have Mexican food on the mind. Nothing to remind you how far from the border Boston is like eating authentic Mexican food in a place much, much closer. Southern California is littered with hole-in-the-wall taco joints, hiding behind nondescript facades in strip malls and street corners, some even have drive-throughs. A taco or enchilada at one of these unimpressive looking eateries is bound to outshine that of a well known chain or east coast hotspot.

While in Southern California, I didn't get many chances to eat the Mexican food seducing me from freeway roadsides, rather as I was visiting family we were almost always full from eating homemade comfort food including my Great Aunt Lois's biscuits and gravy, grilled sausage and corn on the cobb, fresh-from-the-chicken-coop egg scrambles, cornbread, cooked chard and beans. All of this was wonderful, and certainly soulful food, and perhaps at a later date I will post more specifically about some of these foods, and maybe try and create some myself. But today I am craving some spicy Mexican food. It seems one place where these food traditions meet- comfort food, Mexican flavors and southwest traditions, is represented well by an easy but flavorful dish- Tortilla Soup.

I had somewhat recently a pretty good version of a tortilla soup- it was light and flavorful, and full of fresh seasonal vegetables, making it a perfect early summer soup. (Yes in Boston it is currently far from summer, but forgive me, I have just returned from the land of summer all year round) I compared a few recipes found online and in cookbooks, and  had trouble finding one that fit the bill for exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to make a vegetarian version that featured fresh flavors including summer squash and bell pepper. I at first decided to replace the protein in the original dish; pinto or black beans in place of the chicken, but as i cooked the soup, I began to feel that the beans did not belong. I decided to prepare them on the side instead. And yes, I am well aware that the final product may not be exactly authentic. But it's good!

 Tortilla Soup with Summer Squash
A potentially vegan recipe*
Serves 8

1 can whole or diced tomatoes, if whole, mash before use
1 can enchilada sauce, or 3/4 cup homemade- see note*
1 chopped yellow summer squash
1  zucchini, chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
1medium green chile pepper, cored and seeded, chopped. (taste to test hotness, and adjust amount and other spices as needed)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 carton vegetable broth (or 2 cups)
1 tsp cumin
3/4 tsp chilli powder
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 package frozen corn (I suggest Trader Joes roasted frozen corn)
3 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro, plus more to garnish
Juice of  2 limes

for tortilla strips:
Corn tortillas, cut into thin strips, no more than 2 1/2 inches long
Vegetable oil
Sea Salt

Optional  additional garnishes:
Avocado slices
sour cream* (clearly not vegan)
lime slices
fresh cilantro

*please note: check the ingredients of the enchilada sauce if you choose to buy it canned rather than make your own, some contain meat products/stock. You can find an easy to make vegetarian enchilada sauce recipe here.

I made this in the slow cooker simply out of necessity-  when I came home from work, ready to cook (I picked up groceries at the whole foods near my office, and they survived rush hour on the T- I wass a little worried what all the body heat from the crowded train would do to my fresh cilantro!) my roommate's mother was preparing a lobster dinner in our kitchen (which was great, I was lucky enough to join them) and all the large pots were already being used. This could also be cooked on the stove top in a stock pot or dutch oven if you don't have a slow cooker. I chose to prepare this over the course of 2 nights, to make it easy to get it taken care of after work.

Chop the onion and brown in a bit of oil for 5 minutes. Add to the bottom of your slow cooker. chop and add the bell pepper, garlic and chile pepper at this time. add the canned tomatoes, enchilada sauce and stock. juice the lime directly into the slow cooker or pot as well, and add the spices. Cook for three hours on low.

The above is the portion I did the first night, and I set the inside dish from the slow cooker in the refrigerator overnight. This morning before work I  chopped and added the zucchini and summer squash, so they can sit in the soup stock during the day in the fridge. In the evening the last step is to cook for an additional 2.5 hours on low, or up to 2 hours on high. You can also, of course, do this all at once, cooking for a total of about 6 hours on low, and adding the squash in half way through, so that they maintain a somewhat firm texture at the end.

Lastly, the homemade tortilla chips to top the soup, the item that gives this dish its name. I have seen a few ways mentioned to do this, frying in a traditional fryer (which i do not have) frying in a stove top pan, and baking in the oven. I decided to experiment and see which method turned out the best. Just in case I had a bag of store bought tortilla chips on hand if my attempts led to failure.

Luckily, the fried variety turned out excellent, a little time in a wok with hot canola oil (literally only a minute or two to get crispy and brown) then fished out with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel covered plate, and  a good sprinkle of sea salt and they were excellent.The baked variety- brushed with a little oil and salt, and put on a baking sheet in the oven at 400 degrees until brown- were a bit disappointing, not nearly as crispy or flavorful, but in the end,  were an ok healthy alternative. You decide.

the soup turned out flavorful and spicy, and much more filling than expected due to the wealth of squash, zucchini and corn. Yum!

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