sopa de tortilla: operation “duped”

It was a subtle and quiet operation worthy of a Navy SEAL’s praise. Many players where involved: my sister, my children, my sister-in-law. The target: me. I, as with most things, remained clueless, except for the one moment on the phone when I had suggested I take the weekend to visit my dear friend Gayla and her baby and my husband had cautiously recommended we wait until he get home from his trip to “discuss ” it. Those of you who know Yeshua know he is too impulsive to discuss anything. A more fitting response would have been “Sure, yes! Go!” So, I did find it odd that he said that, but, just as quickly as I questioned his response, I forgot it, moving on to homework duties, dinner, doctor appointments and the such.So, it came to a complete shock to me when I sat bleary-eyed and exhausted in front of my computer at 11:30 at night and was greeted by sister-in-law from Omaha who suddenly popped into my office to say hello.I want to tell you that my reaction was that of a Hallmark card. I really want to say that I jumped up and down with joy, ran and hugged my husband with eternal gratefulness and was just so elated and overwhelmed by this incredibly thoughtful and planned-out surprise. I want to say all that, I really do, but I can’t.Instead, I greeted my sister-in-law, a.k.a. the conspirator,with a harsh “what are you doing here?”, and, upon hearing that the plan was for hubbie to whisk me away to Mexico City (flight leaving in 7 hours), I promptly got incredibly pissed. What type of person gets a romantic escape (with no children) to the marvelous land of Mexico for 2 1/2 days and gets pissed? What was the matter with me?I couldn’t help myself. I fumed over not knowing. I fumed over having to cancel my impending responsibilities (too frivolous to mention here), and the more my sister-in-law smirked at my (now cascading) unraveling, the angrier I got. My husband, poor man, stood there shell-shocked.”But, didn’t you tell me you wanted me to whisk you away? I’m whisking!” was all he could muster.You know how this story is going to end. Eventually, I got over being angry, actually gained some perspective, and had an incredibly great time (although I think my husband will be too scared to pull that stunt again without some notice).On the plane ride back it dawned on me that the overwhelming emotion at that initial surprise was that I had felt duped. The notion that something this important was being planned for me and not by me was inconceivable to this control freak. Not having the time to seriously research every culinary pit stop I would be making felt crippling at the time. Yet, things worked out marvelously, as they usually do when you let your guard go. Our 60 hours in Mexico City where packed with as many activities as the notorious traffic would allow. Every street seethed with life and history. Every corner was filled with a culinary adventure, right down to our last meal there which was recommended by a man getting his shoes shined on the corner of a busy street. He guided us to a tiny street corner where an even smaller space housed ten grimy tables and one tiny grill in the corner loaded with fresh tortillas. The place was packed, and, after sampling the food, we understood why. That we had found this gem the way we found it made the food all the tastier. No research would have given me that.The clouds drifted above us and my heart ached to be leaving this great, crazy city behind. “Thank you for whisking me away,” I offered my husband. “Anytime,” he answered back, his eyes locking on mine, our gaze, and our bellies, both full and happy.

Sopa de Tortilla Con Guacamole y Ancho Chile

(adapted from Gourmet Magazine, October 1997, recipe from Cafe Annie in Houston, TX)

If you want to truly test a Mexican kitchen, ask for their Sopa de Tortilla (Tortilla Soup). If it passes, you are guaranteed the rest of the meal will be one worth repeating.

For soup:

1/2 white onion

1 pound plum tomatoes

6 peeled garlic cloves

2 (dried) guajillo chilies* (about 1 ounce)

2 (dried) ancho chilies* (about 1 ounce)

ten 5- to 6-inch white corn tortillas

about 2 cups peanut or vegetable oil for deep-frying

8 cups chicken stock*

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

1 teaspoon coarse salt

Garnish with:

1 chopped avocado

1/2 cup Queso Fresco (fresh white cheese)

crumbled dried ancho chile*

crumbled chicharron (fried pork rind)

fresh lime

*available at Latino markets, specialty foods shops, and some supermarkets

Make soup:

Preheat broiler.Coarsely chop onion. In a well-seasoned 9-inch cast-iron or other heavy ovenproof skillet arrange onion, tomatoes, and garlic in one layer and broil about 2 inches from heat, turning vegetables occasionally with tongs, until tomato skins are blistered and lightly charred, about 20 minutes. Cool vegetables.While vegetables are broiling, remove stems, seeds, and ribs from chilies (wear rubber gloves). Heat a dry griddle or heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and toast chilies, 1 or 2 at a time, pressing down with tongs, a few seconds on each side, or until more pliable. Transfer chilies as toasted to a bowl. Cover chilies with hot water and soak about 20 minutes, or until soft.Drain chilies, discarding soaking liquid, and in a blender purée with vegetable mixture until smooth.

Cut 6 tortillas into quarters and cut remaining 4 tortillas into 1/4-inch-wide strips. In cleaned 9-inch skillet heat 1/2 inch oil until a deep-fat thermometer registers 375°F. and fry tortilla quarters in 3 batches, turning them, until crisp and pale golden, 30 seconds to 1 minute. With a slotted spoon transfer quarters as fried to paper towels to drain.

Fry tortilla strips in 2 batches in same manner, transferring with tongs to paper towels to drain and keeping them separate from fried tortilla quarters. In a plastic bag with a rolling pin finely crush tortilla quarters.In a 5-quart heavy kettle bring stock and chili pure to a boil, stirring. Stir in crushed tortillas, oregano, and salt and simmer, uncovered, whisking occasionally, until tortillas are soft and soup is slightly thickened, 30 to 45 minutes. If necessary, season soup with salt and pepper.

Put garnishes in little bowls and have everyone garnish their own soups.

Makes about 9 cups.

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