A few months ago, Jason and I went out for dinner at the Mexican place here in Carrboro. It’s sort of a hole in the wall (hole in the strip mall?) and we had never been, so we gave it a try. I was planning to order some kind of standard Mexican restaurant combo plate, but saw tortilla soup on the menu. Now, to explain my decision, I have to say that there is a Mexican restaurant in Wilmington that has tortilla soup that is to. die. for. It’s cheap, cheesy, a little spicy, a perfect for weeknight dinner. It comes with chunks of avocado and it’s always exactly the right thing. Always. Admittedly, I chose it with high expectations from the little place in Carrboro that I have no previous experience with. I didn’t know how disappointing it could be.
I got so excited for the soup, that when it came, I was sure they had brought me the wrong thing. It was just chicken noodle soup, minus the noodles, plus leftover mexican rice. For real! There was no chili powder to be found. Or garlic. Or cumin. Nothing to redeem this soup. It was terrible. While I drowned my sorrows in the gigantic 32-ounce beer I accidentally ordered, I daydreamed of the tortilla soup I would make. I had to have it.
It took me a couple of tries, but I finally arrived at a recipe that I think does La Costa’s tortilla soup justice. I’ll warn you–I don’t usually use lots of canned ingredients (mostly beans or tomatoes), but this recipe demands Rotel tomatoes and green chiles. I even tried a can of diced tomatoes and roasted my own green chile–not the same. You need the spices and slightly pickle-y flavor that only a can of Rotel can give you. As long as you don’t ever mix it with a melted block of Velveeta, I think we can still be friends. Friends who use Rotel in their tortilla soup.
Here’s the recipe: (adapted from Pioneer Woman through lots of trial and error)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 t cumin (1/2 t for the chicken)
2 t chili powder (1/2 t for the chicken)
1/2 t garlic powder (all for the chicken)
1/2 t salt (all for the chicken)
1 yellow onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 can Rotel tomatoes and green chiles
32 oz chicken broth, low sodium
3 T tomato paste
4 cups hot water
2 cans black beans
3 T cornmeal
5 corn tortillas, cut into strips
greek yogurt, avocado, monterey jack cheese, and cilantro to serve.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Rub some olive oil on the 2 chicken breasts, then rub with the spices seta side for the chicken. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the chicken is done. You can also do this on the grill. Shred the chicken breasts with two forks, set aside.
In a large pot with a heavy bottom, sautee the onion and peppers in olive oil. Then, add the garlic and tomato paste and push that all around until the tomato paste is fragrant. Then, add the Rotel and remaining spices. Then, throw in the broth and water, and add the beans. Let simmer for 30-45 minutes.
After the soup has had a while to simmer, add the cornmeal and simmer for another 20 minutes or so. It seems like a lot of time to let all this happen, but it’s worth it. Really. Add the chicken at the end.
Tortilla soup is best on cold nights with friends. Also, if someone knows how to make horchata, let me know. I think it’s almond milk? I don’t really know, but it would be super fun to have both!