Monday, January 17, 2011

Tortilla Soup

My friend, Molly, inspired this simple, lovely recipe.  She is a great cook, and I was lucky enough to eat her tortilla soup recently.  I know I just posted a soup recipe, but January is National Soup Month, and I’ve wanted to make this recipe for a while.  I’m not sure who exactly the qualified authority figure is that delegates these food holidays, but I think it’s a good excuse to inundate my blog with soup recipes.  Plus, avocados make a perfect garnish for tortilla soup, and they just happened to be on an irresistible sale. 

My tortilla soup is very similar to Molly’s soup, the source of its inspiration.  It is made with canned chicken stock, flavored with cumin, onion, bell pepper, and tomatoes.  The soup does not have any meat in it.  Instead, heartiness is added by the creamy texture of black beans and the sweet pop of corn kernels.  Unlike Molly’s recipe, my soup is thickened with white corn tortillas during the cooking process, while she served it with tortilla chips.  Although my method isn’t seen in most recipes, it’s fairly traditional.  The tortillas practically dissolve into the soup, adding body and flavor to the soup.  Once the tortillas hit the hot soup, you can immediately smell the difference, as the corn tortillas heat through and distribute through the pot.  After cooking, some small pieces of tortilla remain, but most disappear into the soup and simply thicken and flavor the soup.
Not only is the soup delicious, but its preparation is very easy.  It only requires some sautéing of vegetables followed by dumping of various ingredients to the pot.  It was a stress-free and relaxing meal to make.  The flavor base is onion, bell pepper, and garlic (I wanted to add a jalapeno, but forgot it in my grocery basket).  After sautéing the vegetables, the majority of the remaining ingredients are essentially dropped into the pot, and the whole thing simmers for a half hour.  This gives you plenty of time to clean up, and prepare the toppings. 
The best part of the soup may actually be the toppings.  Molly served it with a bevy of toppings:  tortilla chips, fresh cilantro, cheese, avocado, and onion.  She even had chopped tomatillos, fresh from her father’s garden.  My toppings were not quite as plentiful, but I followed the same basic idea.  I used fresh cilantro, diced avocado, and cubes of salty feta cheese.  Queso fresco is traditional, but Molly used feta, so I followed her example.  Plus, I love any excuse to eat feta cheese.  This was such an easy and delicious recipe, where the whole somehow exceeds the sum of its parts.  Sometimes, I enjoy cooking dishes that require lots of chopping and preparation, but this making this soup was a relaxing process that made for a hearty and delicious meal on a snowy Sunday night (during National Soup Month, no less).  
Tortilla Soup (serves 4-6)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, chopped
Salt, pepper, garlic salt, seasoning salt, to taste
3-14 oz. cans reduced sodium chicken stock
1-14 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 cup frozen corn kernels (no need to thaw)
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
4 corn tortillas, cut in strips
2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro.
Possible garnishes: avocado, cheese, sour cream, fresh cilantro, lime wedges

-       In a large soup pot, preheat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic to pan.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (I used about a half teaspoon of each), and sauté for 10 minutes, or until vegetables are soft.
-       Add chicken stock, tomatoes, corn, cilantro, cumin, hot pepper flakes, and chili powder.  Increase heat and bring liquid to a boil.  When boiling, reduce heat so that the soup simmers. 
-       Add tortillas and black beans.  Cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soup starts to thicken and tortillas break down.
-       Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.
-       Serve soup and garnish as desired.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Matzo Ball Soup

New Year’s Eve, 2010: the close of a remarkable year.  When I say “remarkable,” I mean it in the truest sense of the word, meaning striking, noteworthy, and worthy of attention.  I have been blissfully happy, stressed, inspired, disenchanted, and utterly devastated.  I have been to a wedding, and a funeral.  And it has now come to a close.  I have been accused of being a contrarian before, and while I am not certain that this shoe fits me in general, it definitely fits when it comes to New Year’s Eve.  To me, New Year's Eve is a recipe for disappointment:  over-crowded bars with over-priced drinks.  Because it marks the passing of years, it necessitates some sort of self-reflection, for which crowds of strangers are not conducive.  So, what do these negative opinions make me?  A party pooper.  And no better way to embrace my true party pooper self than to stay in on New Year’s Eve, and do some cooking to tend my wounds.

New Year’s Eve cooking provides the opportunity for leisurely, slow-simmering recipes.  I chose soul-soothing matzo ball soup, and indulged in all possible steps to make it as flavorful as possible, drawing out the process simply because I had the time to.  Honestly, what else is a party pooper going to do on New Year’s Eve when it is 10 degrees outside?
The first thing I did was prepare the tender little matzo balls.  If you’ve never had a matzo ball, it is sort of like a bland meatball made entirely with cracker meal.  I suppose it may be called a Jewish dumpling, comprised of matzo meal and a little oil, bound together with eggs.  They are tender, bland, and comforting.  Matzo balls are simmered in salted water, which results in random salty bites.  The whole process takes about 45 minutes, and it is largely unattended.  The easiest thing you can do is to go the kosher isle of the grocery store and pick up a box of matzo ball mix, then follow the instructions exactly.  It’s pretty simple.  Most importantly, do not, under any circumstances, lift the lid off the matzo balls as they simmer.  This will make them tough.  This advice has been passed down from my late grandmother, and must be heeded.  My grandma was not exactly known for her culinary prowess; she had a habit of  mixing any and all lingering beverages in the fridge into one cesspool of leftover liquids (juices, soda, anything).  However, the woman knew her matzo balls.  
Essentially, you mix one packet of matzo meal with 2 lightly beaten eggs and 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.  Let this sit in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, and then roll the mixture into 1 inch diameter spheres.  Next, drop the them into boiling, salted water, and put a lid on the pot.  Reduce the heat to a simmer, and leave the pot alone for 20 minutes.  Anyway, if you follow these instructions or the one on the box, you should have matzo balls that look something like the picture above.  They will be tender and fluffy, yet substantial.  They are sort of like lumps of bread that can stand up to soup.  Furthermore, matzo balls can be made in advance and await your spoon in the fridge.  I made mine in the morning, but I don’t see why they couldn’t be made a day in advance.  
Next, I proceeded in making a delicious broth.  I did not make it from scratch, and instead fortified canned chicken stock with aromatic vegetables and herbs.  I used carrots (3 cut in thirds), celery (3 stalks cut in thirds), 1 onion (peeled and halved), 6 whole garlic cloves (peeled), fresh dill sprigs, and lots of black pepper.  All of these lovely vegetables took a leisurely bath in 4 cans worth of simmering chicken stock (with one cup water added).  This step of simmering vegetables is not necessary, but it adds richness to the stock, makes your apartment smell amazing, and it’s fun (at least that is my personal belief).  Simply add the aforementioned vegetables in large chunks and let the broth simmer away for an hour or so.  Cover the soup during this process, but vent the lid, and stir the broth occasionally.  When the vegetables are very tender, and they have relinquished their fresh flavor, remove them with a slotted spoon.  You can discard them, or enjoy them as a snack.  I always leave the garlic cloves in soup because I love them.  If you've never had slow-cooked garlic cloves, they may surprise you.  After all of that cooking, they become incredibly soft and lose their pungency.       
If you skip the previously discussed stock fortifying step, do not fear.  You will still have delicious soup.  Use the same amount of broth and add 4-5 thinly sliced carrots and 3 thinly sliced stalks of celery.  Pepper, dill (fresh or dried), or dried parsley are all nice additions.  In fact, treat your soup in this manner whether you have skipped the step above or not.  According to Marc Bittman, traditional matzo ball soup is served only with carrots, but celery was always in the mix at my family dinner.  Once you add the sliced carrots and celery, simmer for about thirty minutes to an hour so that the fresh vegetables may cook to your texture specifications.  Allow the soup to cook uncovered at this point so that the broth will reduce, and deepen in flavor. 
When you are ready to eat, add the matzo balls to the soup (they warm quickly, and I do it per each bowl).  Perhaps sprinkle some fresh dill on top.  With this soup, you now are ready to soothe your soul, even if it’s only a temporary measure.  That is, until you go back for seconds.