Posted by: Rachel | May 21, 2010

potage de tortilla

In keeping with this blog’s inherent concept of letting *nothing* go to waste, here’s the piece I submitted to my writer’s group this month. The May prompt was “Your most memorable experience involving something inherently Mexican (a vacation, a meal, a game, a souvenir, a friend). (honoring Cinco de Mayo)”. Bon appetit!
One way to engage (and hopefully please) dinner guests is to provide a meal that is unfamiliar yet comfortable. It can be tricky, but this time it worked quite nicely.

I was in France staying in the home of a good friend. We had friends coming for dinner, and I was thinking of making a soup or stew, but didn’t want to make something that my friends (or their mothers) made everyday. One pitfall I try to avoid is preparing someone else’s comfort food and expecting them to like my spin on it. So, I went a totally different direction.

Growing up in Pittsburgh my entire experience with Mexican cuisine started and ended with Patio frozen dinners. These were a treat purely by their rarity in that my sister and I were only allowed to have them when my parents were going out for dinner, there were no leftovers, and the sitter didn’t cook. I thought at the time these meals were exotic and delicious, but I was very young. Now I know a bit better. Having lived in Texas for over twenty years I do not believe that those Patio dinners had anything to do with Mexico.

What I have learned about is Tex-Mex. There are about a half-dozen Tex-Mex eateries of different sizes within walking distance of my house. One is located in the middle of a a parking lot and specializes in take-away grilled chicken, two are located within small markets, and several more are scattered nearby in strip centers. They all smell wonderful.

I thrive on cilantro and fresh lime juice and cheeses. I love cumin and coriander and tomatoes, avocados and onion. I thought my friends would too, so I decided to fix a knock-off of tortilla soup for dinner.

Shopping for dinner was amusing. I felt like I was back in Pittsburgh, rather than in a small town in France. The exotic food aisle in the big grocery sported what I think of a “safe” international choices, and I’m sure that if that area had had a freezer section I would have found frozen Patio dinners. I bought a box of Old El Paso taco shells and a can of black beans and went to the green grocer.

In the green grocer’s cool and shady shop I had the obligatory discussion about my plans for the avocado. French green grocers are notorious for knowing what you want better than you do. I have a friend who spent two weeks in Paris and, after buying a peach at the same fruit stand and having the “when do you plan to eat it” conversation several days in a row, was finally bested with “Oui, monsieur, certainly you will eat it tomorrow, but morning or afternoon?”

Knowing this, I stretched the truth a hair and said I planned to eat the avocado for lunch that day and was given one of sufficient ripeness. The onions, tomatoes, and garlic were easy purchases, as was the bunch of cilantro and the lime. I headed home.

The chicken stock was already made, and there was a good amount of nice leftover chicken on the bone from a previous dinner. I deboned it and chopped it up and set it aside. The big heavy stock pot was pulled out and I got started. So many of my favorite recipes start with “chop an onion…”

Quick and Easy Tortilla Soup

1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
1 T each ground cumin and coriander
1 t oregano
1 lb tomatoes, seeded
1 cup whole corn kernels, drained
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 C (or more) cooked chicken cut in bite-sized bits
5 C chicken stock
salt and pepper
corn tortillas or corn chips
1 avocado, sliced*
shredded cheese (Monterey Jack or, in a pinch Emmentaler will do)
chopped green onion
lime wedges

*to prepare the avocado
Cut the avocado lengthwise with a large knife. Run the blade of the knife around the large pit until there are two distinct halves. Twist the two halves apart. Put an oven mitt on (in case you miss) and cup the half of the avocado that has the pit. Strike the pit sharply with the blade of a large sharp knife as though you were trying to cut it in half. The pit will become attached to the knife. Twist the knife and the pit will come out on the blade. You can then run a short knife through the avocado meat to form slices. Do not cut the skin. Once the strips are cut, run a soup spoon around the avocado half between the meat and the skin. The slices will come out nicely. Drizzle with lime juice, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

for the soup:

In a medium stock pot, heat oil over medium heat. Saute the onion and garlic in oil until soft. Stir in the cumin and coriander. Add the tomatoes and reduce heat. Steam the tomatoes until the skins can be removed (about 10 minutes). The tomatoes will sort of melt but retain some structure.

Add the oregano, drained corn, black beans, chicken and stock. Stir gently. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Check for salt and pepper as needed. Remove from heat, and add the cilantro. Stir to combine.

Ladle soup into individual serving bowls, and top each bowl with crushed tortilla chips, avocado slices, cheese, chopped green onion and a lime wedge. Serve with a baguette and beer.

The thing that made this dinner work, I think, was that while the ingredients were identifiable individually, the combination of flavors was unusual and the presentation was unique. It was a big hit and, if I may say so, both pretty and pretty yummy! No pictures this time, you’ll just have to take my word(s) for it!


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