Monday, April 04, 2011

Tortilla Soup with Chipotle Cream

You know those weeks where you feel like Frankenstein? Like everyone else is human and whole, and you're all pieced together from used parts and strangeness, your seams showing, while you clomp around and knock stuff over and grunt out your apologies? Only, somehow, you're more like a teenaged Frankenstein doing bad stand-up comedy, staggering through the world with your padded bra and acne, feeling like everyone is backing slowly away from you, even as you're trying to make them laugh, only they can't understand your jokes on account of your guttural personality and the fact that your neck bolts are kind of distracting?


Me either.

Well, maybe just a little. I don't know. "Off my game" is one phrase that leaps to mind. "PMS" is another. I laugh too loud and blurt out weird stuff, and am simultaneously awkward and needy. If you were here, you'd be inclined to wrap your arms around me and say, "Oh, sweetheart," but then you'd end up getting something on your shirt--yogurt or snot or a hairball--and I'd laugh more snot out of my nose and apologize and… and you'd stay by me. I hadn't intended that as a metaphor for what's happening on this blog, but even as I'm writing, it occurs to me how vital it is, this circling of the wagons that you guys have pulled off around me. To keep the wolves out. Thank you. I'm sorry about your shirt.

The kids, too, are doing it--without even knowing consciously that it needs to be done. Ben's sense of humor is like a hot air balloon, and I'm in its basket, uplifted and admiring the view and a little deafened. We were at a show last night… Here we go again. Even as I'm starting to tell you this story, I'm realizing how awkward and impossible it will be to communicate. Grrrrr vvvvv nnnnhhhhhhhhhhh… ha ha ha. But I will try anyway. We were at this show and Ben and I were waiting for the bathroom, and the pretty woman who burst out of the stall, with her nice sweater and silver jewelry and sleek hair, had in her hand a bowl of stew. "Just enjoying a little dinner in the bathroom?" I said, because I'm so funny, and she laughed and coughed, her eyes streaming, and said, "No, I was kind of choking, but now I'm fine." Later, after the lights dimmed, who should come up stage to introduce the musician? "Oh my god!" Ben whispered. "It's the stew choker!" And at 10-minute intervals for the rest of the night he whispered stew choker and I died every time. I understand that this might not seem conventionally like a way to take care of another person, and yet, also, it is.

Is stew choking a good segue to tortilla soup? I hope so. Because here it is: warming and rustic, ruddy and full of bright flavors and dark flavors and crunch and creaminess. As with many other simple soups, this one is all about the garnishes: lime wedges and the chipotle sour cream, avocado and, of course, the tortilla strips. Feel free to substitute a big handful of tortilla chips in each bowl--it will be a little less exciting to look at, but equally delicious. And honestly? If I, personally, were going to omit one ingredient, it would be the chicken. Crazy, maybe, but true. Enjoy and stay warm.

Tortilla Soup with Chipotle Cream
Serves 4-6
Take an hour, more or less, to make

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoon chile powder* (I used half ancho, half new Mexican)
1 cup canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
6 cups chicken broth (or 4 cups broth plus 2 cups water)
½ teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much tables salt) plus more to taste
1 tablespoon cornmeal stirred into ½ cup cold water
Olive oil spray
6 corn tortillas
Lime juice and sugar to taste
2 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts (or 3 small)
1 14-ounce can black beans, drained

Chipotle sour cream (1/2 cup full-fat sour cream whisked with 1 teaspoon chipotle puree**)
Diced Avocado
Lime wedges

Heat the oven to 400.

In a large soup hot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat, and sauté the onion and garlic until they are getting nice and soft and translucent, around 5 to 10 minutes. Add the chile powder and sauté just until fragrant--a few seconds--that add the tomatoes, tomato paste, broth, and salt, and bring the soup to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the cornmeal slurry (this will add lovely body to the soup), turn the heat down, and simmer, covered, for half an hour, stirring occasionally.

ruddy onions
 Meanwhile, spritz the corn tortillas with olive-oil spray (I spray one side and figure that when I stack them they get pretty evenly coated), then stack them, cut them into strips, and spread them on an oiled baking sheet. Bake them until they're golden and crisp, moving them around as you need to so that they brown evenly. This will take around 10 minutes, more or less.
Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Exhibit C. Is this annoying--the photos in the middle? (asked Frankenstein)
 Now back to the soup: taste the broth and add salt, lime juice, and sugar to taste until you've got a good, fully, vibrant flavor that you like. Pop in the chicken breasts and keep the soup at a super-low simmer, covered, until the meat is cooked through. Remove the chicken to a cutting board and shred it with your fingers or a couple of forks.

 In a blender, carefully and in batches, or with a stick blender, whir the soup to unify it, then add the chicken back in with the beans and simmer it for another 5 minutes. Taste it, adjust the seasonings, and serve with the garnishes.
This is yummy on other stuff too. Whisk a little mayo, salt, and garlic into it for the world's best sandwich spread.
Little white bowls of garnishes make me excessively happy.
Plus they give everyone an excuse to get all nice and involved.

You know I like a moody photo of a partially eaten meal. Sigh.
* A note about chile powder: I know you know this probably, but if you buy "chili powder," like, McCormick's, say, it will likely be a blend with other seasonings in it, such as cumin, oregano, and garlic--which is fine for this soup, honestly. But I recommend also having on hand some true chile powder--which is just the ground chiles--for times when you want to better control the seasoning of your dish. But, confusingly, this might sometimes be spelled "chili" also. If you read the label, you'll find out. Or if you buy it in bulk from a store like Whole Foods, you'll be able to get the pure chiles.

** A note about the chipotle: I buy a small tin of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (if there's a Mexican section of your supermarket, you'll be able to find it there), puree it in the blender, and store it in a clean glass jar in the fridge, where it keeps almost forever as long as you don't stick a dirty spoon (or finger) in it. I find this incredibly handy to have around for those times you want to stir a bit of smoky heat into something.


  1. In answer to the questions posed in your first paragraph? Yes.

    And I think I am one of many readers who feels that your columns have often been my "shirt" for the too-frequent Frankenstein moments. Making me feel like it's really not so unusual, or so terrible, to be so bumbling and odd and insecure and prone to screwing things up.

    And I can totally see how the chicken is the most dispensable ingredient in this soup. Looks great. Wish I had a bowl right now on this rainy day.

    My word verification for this comment is "scrode." I don't think that's a word but it really should be.

  2. I second what Ellen said about the "shirt." It is nice to not think I'm the only one figuring this out as I go along...

    Perfect recipe for right now- shirtsleeves today, winter coat tomorrow.

    Spring is coming, right?

  3. Ohmama-200711:37 AM

    Oh Thank God, Catherine. I have been having some fairly serious withdrawle type symptoms since the fated Disney debacle, and honestly I feel like my friend moved away and left a sort of weird forwarding address. One that seemed like it might be fake? But that I hoped was real? Cause I would miss my friend so much even though I never, ever said so to her face? So I checked back here, about twice a day, in a non-freaky monitoring my friend if she still likes me way......and it seems you do! Because you gave me crunchy shrimp, and warm soup that I can legitamately add chips to! And, bonus of all, a Ben story. One that reminds me instantly of the good days of sweet Ben, and sweet Catherine, and her good family that is so much like my family, dirty shirts included. Don't worry, I got some brown beef stew from the baby's hands on yours as you got some snot on mine. we're even. I am thankful to have you here Catherine, in all your moods. Thanks for sticking with us.

  4. *smiling and nodding and would hug you and not mind a hairball on my shirt*

    Also, I like your small white cups of add-ins.

  5. I may use this recipe for the tortilla strips alone. Is that wrong?

  6. This looks perfect for our weather, which has, in the past week, included the inaugural wearing of shorts and the receiving of 3 inches of snow. Thanks for the idea of just putting the chicken in the pot! The less raw handling the better!

    I go back and forth on liking the interrupting pictures and not liking them. Maybe you could include a full copy of ingredients followed by directions (ie a printable version) somewhere in the post for those who want uninterrupted instructions.

    Also, the repeated stew choking joke is perfect! We watched this:

    My kids kept saying "Oak Street," and I'd laugh till I always felt better. We are all just glad you're still around!

  7. first of all, porn. That soup is everything I love, and now I need to make it.

    I see your Frankenstein and raise you a sprained ankle, PMS, head cold on the verge of my one getaway a year with my husband. I'm not *like* Frankenstein- I am actual, for realsies, self pitying beastess with the leastest, Bride of Frankenstein's less appealing cousin this week.

    But this soup might help.

  8. Thank you so much! I've been looking for a tortilla soup recipe and now, because it's yours, I know it will be wonderful.

    And YES absolutely to the Frankenstein thing. Always!

  9. *forehead smack* Your tip for storing chipotles was a mini epiphany for me. We just dump the whole can in a container and fish them out- the idea of whirring it up and spooning it, thus keeping my husband from over-spicing because he measures only in whole-chipotle increments, is going to save me and the kids from overspiced meals!

  10. Anonymous12:39 PM

    The pictures in the middle are great.
    You're funny, honest, and great as usual.

  11. Anonymous1:33 PM

    Sweet, funny Catherine, so glad you haven't left us for loftier ventures. I love your recipes, your pictures-in-the-middle, your family. Keep it up, old friend.

  12. Allyson1:40 PM

    It's going to be in the forties and fifties and rainy all week. Perfect weather for a delicious, warming, but not too heavy soup. Wonderful post, as always, Catherine!

  13. dale in denver1:50 PM

    I'm hoping I didn't guilt you in to this particular recipe.....but it sounds delish and apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so. 80 on Saturday, cold and snowy yesterday. We need this.

    Stew Choker. That made me laugh, and I wasn't even there. Hugs to you!

  14. dale in denver2:02 PM

    Oh, and some cilantro leaves are a lovely garnish as well - for those who like cilantro, which would include zero of my children. But my husband and I are fans and since it is an optional addition of course we will put it out there.

  15. That looks great!

    My Frankenstein moments have been related to sweatiness lately. I seem to arrive everywhere too sweaty and with shoes that aren't nearly pretty enough. And then there's my lurching Spanish after having spent the entire morning in my head in English.... yeah, Frankenstein...

  16. I've been looking for a decent tortilla soup recipe FOREVER!! I can't wait to try this one!

    Also...stew choker! HA!!

  17. Just like Mr. Rogers said, I like you just the way the way you are! And my shirt is washable, no need to worry. I see I don't need it this week, but I jumped for joy today because I finally found smoked paprika. Chick/butt peas, here I come.

  18. I have reason to feel vulnerable, too, and it feels great to be in your smart, funny, vulnerable company.

  19. I want to make sure that you know there are plenty of readers like me, who read you via rss feed and don't comment but love you all the same. I rely on your steady wisdom and kind, thoughtful way and I will follow you wherever you write. Thank you for all that you do and all that you give us. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  20. Caitlin7:44 PM

    Another longtime lurker here, back from the days of babycenter; I clung to you as one of my few links to kindred spirits evolving into motherhood, especially as I was halfway across the world at that time. Now I am not nearly as far away (just across the border in Ontario) and I still follow you faithfully, enjoying your journey, laughing and crying with you.

    I sincerely wish all our comments could morph into a great writing contract for you! Because as much as we love your blog posts -with and without recipes - I suspect they don't contribute much to the grocery bill. Hoping something soul-satisfying and lucrative comes along for you.

    And I am still on the hunt for smoked paprika.

  21. This looks awesome. Thanks for the tip about the adobe sauce. I always buy a can, use a TB, and then it goes to waste. Such a good, why the hell didn't I think of that, idea ;)

  22. ha ha, fellow Frankenstein sisters. I knew you were out there.

    And, hey, Caitlin, check this out:


  23. Anonymous9:15 PM

    Everyone should have a group with whom they share the Frankenstein moments of their existence. We can all relate, I am sure.

    Chicken Tortilla soups is a favorite of everyone in my house. One of those rare meals that involve no negotiation over what must be sampled, and what one will eat happily. Sigh. I wish I were having that for dinner right now.

    Tuck in to your soup. Soak up the stew choker jokes. Enjoy the admiration floating your way from the blogosphere.

  24. Can't wait to try this. Sounds heavenly.

    Lemme know if you want to keep in touch. :)

  25. Anonymous11:22 PM

    How funny. I am "off" right now, too. Feeling hurt that old friends haven't called in a while (but aware that I also haven't called them). Feeling discouraged about work (but not making huge efforts to change things). I think my mom used to say something in these situations about eating fried worms. I'm thankful I now recognize it as temporary...and most likely hormonal. Tomorrow will be a better day. (My mom used to say that, too).

  26. I really am a Frankenstein sister! Oh this is why the wagons come rolling in because you GET it.

    For Caitlin, I am in Ontario too and I found the smoked paprika at Longos.

    Can't wait to try the soup.

  27. Anonymous9:29 AM

    Looks delicious. I'm especially looking forward to the chipotle sour cream. --Cathy K

  28. What a brilliant idea about the chipotles! I usually dismiss recipes that call for them because I know I'll waste the leftovers. No more! This soup sounds so good. I too love little bowls of extras. Here in the bottom of Louisiana we're having cool weather right now, but if I don't get the ingredients for this soup right this very minute, I fear it will be too stifling to enjoy it.

    I'm glad you can and do share your Frankenstein moments with us. Don't worry about my shirt - I never liked it anyway!

  29. Yesterday I sent my 2-year-old son's lunch with my 6-year-old daughter and vice versa. Daughter discovered it before leaving home and made some substitutions, but son insisted on dumping some components of the lunch, and then I had to buy him some replacements at the college cafeteria and deliver them later (he goes to daycare on the college campus where I work). Does this count as a Frankenstein moment? We were all three certainly a little "off" for the rest of the day. Maybe in part because I was the one who ended up eating the Scooby Doo go-gurt.

  30. dale in denver12:11 PM

    I still tended to waste some of the pureed chipotle because I used so very little in any given recipe. So, I use Catherine's trick that she gave us for tomato paste. Once the chipotles are pureed, I dollop a tablespoon or so onto waxed paper and freeze. Once solid, I put into a labeled ziploc freezer bag. I thaw a cube at a time and if any of it has been sitting in the frig for extended periods, I don't feel bad pitching and thawing another cube...

  31. Catherine,

    I'm so glad to hear you here! And I hope, hope, HOPE that a book of your recipes is in the works. As a small business owner, I really perked up at the possibility of advertising on your site...I'd love to find out more.

    Here's to all things Ben and Birdy, snotty Frankenstein and all! Makes the rest of us feel much more normal!



  32. Catherine, don't change a thing. We are all quite used to, and most of us truly love, the interrupting pictures. I was hoping you really were going to post a tortilla soup recipe, and it wasn't just a pondering sort of statement. This sounds awesome, I can hardly wait to try it. Great for any day, any weather, fancy or informal, yum! Thanks, and thanks for the glimspses of you and yours which we all love as well!
    And my word verification is "zinserf", which I also think would make a great "real" word, a little smerfy, perhaps, but fun!

  33. This soup is simmering on my stove right now. It's raining and cold here, but the aromas of the soup are lifting my spirits. Just what I needed to help me through this protracted winter's end.

  34. I Frankenstein my way through life but didn't know how to describe it until you took my feelings (well, your feelings that I happen to share, I guess) and worked your magic and put it in a way that makes me feel a little more normal, a little less alone. Thank you for that, Catherine. And thank you for sharing your recipes and thus a little sliver of your life with us here.

    I'm coming out of my comment silence to show support for whatever direction your writing life takes from here. It's the very least I feel I can do, what with the way your beautiful words often float to the front of my jumbled brain in moments both good and bad, whether I'm being particularly Frankenstein-y or less so. Again, thank you.

  35. Anonymous5:37 PM

    Thank you for this recipe - I am having a Very Bad Week (Frankenstein-esq, indeed) and needed a vision of comfort food!


  36. I am having a Frankenstein week myself which was typified by the way this meal went. I am not such a novice in the kitchen that I normally would struggle to tell the difference between a chicken and a cow, but I got all the way through the first simmer and tasting before I noticed that I had used beef broth instead of chicken. I decided to start over and then continued to make a whole bunch of similar dumb mistakes. Honestly, I don't think you could even dream up as many errors as I made in this simple, straight-forward recipe. And then I spilled it on myself and the tablecloth during dinner.

    It was pretty tasty even with my mistakes, so I'm sure it will be truly delicious when I am more "on". At least my kids took pity on me and kept shooting me little smiles and finding things to compliment, however pathetic. My husband claimed to like it even though I accidentally put in too much chile in adobo (one of my many substitutions) which makes his throat constrict a little bit. You know you are projecting some serious neediness when your husband is feeling his throat closing and *still* smiles and claims that that you're a great cook!

  37. Made the soup tonight and it was fabulous -- loved by all. Thanks!

  38. Catherine,
    Thank you so much for posting this, it looks wonderful. I am wondering if you knew if/when they are taking your recipes down over at I keep meaning to transcribe everything, I don't want to lose them forever!

    I two am a constant reader via RSS, but will try to make a point to post more because I would not be able to stand a world without your weekly musings. Maybe that's stalkerish, but it's true!

  39. Erin K.2:44 AM

    I LOVE tortilla soup! And I think I WILL leave out the chicken - less to choke on and all. :)

  40. Catherine, I just love you. Your vulnerability and humor, the way your writing makes us all feel not-so-alone, and then your great recipes! Thank you.

  41. dale in denver1:40 PM

    I just had a great thought that I'd use leftover tortillas that you provided a recipe for a while back. :-) Except that we never have any leftover. :-( But also :-) because my guys LOVE them and eat a really good dinner whenever we have them.

  42. Catherine, I have to say I adore you! I have been reading since Ben was a baby and you were over at Babycenter! I even bought your book and have read it every time we have been happily awaiting a new arrival (all four of them)!

    To answer your question, yes, I have felt the way you described more often than not the last week or so! So thank you for your shirt!

    Your writing is such a comfort and a ray of sunshine! Keep writing, I so look forward to your posts.

    Feel free to use my "shirt" whenever needed...snot doesn't bother me! :)

  43. Lindsey5:42 PM

    I have been having the same weird, bumbling, PMS'y week so far, but I laughed for about 5 minutes imagining Ben repeating "stew choker" over and over. I love when our kids make us feel better just being their hilarious selves.

    Oh and the soup sounds great too :-)

  44. Anonymous9:10 PM

    You saved my ass last night, and it's not the first time. This was dinner, was splendid in every possible way, and there was just enough for lunch today too. Goes right to the front of the soup section in my cookery binder. I'll join your wagon-circle anywhere, thanks much for your honesty, wisdom, vulnerability, and deliciousness!

  45. "I laugh too loud and blurt out weird stuff, and am simultaneously awkward and needy." YES.... exactly how I feel right now. Especially around other moms I don't know very well but would like to know better because they seem kind of cool and fun. Do you think they are also feeling like Frankenstein?

  46. Anonymous9:42 PM

    Sob, sob, and triple-sob. Just caught up after several months away, to the sad news about the end. I'll miss the recipes on I always felt every week like I was getting double the bang for my buck ;). I'd come here first, see if anything was new, then use the link to click over to the recipe, because I could never remember the address of but that's OK. keep writing here, and that should keep us all happy! Are we needy? :) thanks for all you do, Catherine. You are "every mum", there is a little bit of you in all of us.


  47. ack! I love reading your stories/recipes more than ever! Oh and I can't wait to try this version of tortilla soup. thanks you goof! :)

  48. I'm Frankenstein too, this week. Thanks for the recipes Catherine, both soup and shrimp look delcious. Maybe I'll make a real meal instead of serving granola and smoothies to the entire family...

  49. This soup sounds lovely and yummy and delicious, but I'm pretty sure I can't find half the ingredients (even assuming I knew what to look for) here in my corner of France... Am sad! But will eat vicariously via the yummy photos...

  50. Heather6:35 PM

    I can't wait to make this. I also want to thank you for your game round up. I just finished playing "guess who" and "slamwich" with my 5 year old (and "sleeping queens" last night). Never would have found these games without you!

  51. Kristen7:05 PM

    This post reminded me of one of my favorite songs:
    Sometimes being Frankenstein is a good thing! And my shirt already has both snot and dog slobber on it so yours wouldn't be any trouble.

  52. Anonymous8:33 PM

    Who wants to be friends with people who don't ever feel like teenage Frankensteins? Not me. :)

    Thanks for the recipe. Can't wait to try it.


  53. melissa10:30 PM

    I will have to try the chipotle idea, or the freezer one from another post. This soup sounds fabulous. It will be nice here in Ohio this weekend, but cold and rainy again soon enough. And I just signed up for your RSS (?) feed, and now you are on my homepage, top left. That is a highlight of my week. Thanks for continuing to be the shirt for all of us!

  54. I had to comment again because I made this tonight, it got two thumbs up from the whole family, even the picky ones! Chipotle sour cream is sooo good, even with light sour cream. I threw in some cilantro because it was around.
    And thanks to your recent shrimp post, which I also just read, I can't stop singing "shoop"... amazingly I still know all the words, yet when I lose my cell phone I realize I don't have a single number committed to memory. Wow. Great soup! Thanks!

  55. Thanks to a little something I call "my real job," I feel like the grinch took a giant dump on my holiday spirit. None of my Christmas knitting is done. My baking has been done in a perfunctory "get'er done" fashion and remains undelivered. None of the baby's Christmas art has been hung. So maybe a little tortilla soup may cheer me up. Or it may not, but at least there will be soup.

    Maybe I need bourbon eggnog too.