Thanksgiving Leftovers: Turkey Tortilla Soup

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I've had chili on the mind recently. While working through more than a few pounds of beef in my attempt at Real Texas Chile Con Carne, I still had a refrigerator drawer stuffed to the brim with dried chilies of every make, color, and size.

OK, that's a lie. What I meant to say is the small section of the drawer in my refrigerator that's not filled with 48 pounds worth of Michigan hot dogs (don't ask) is stuffed with chilies. Still, as the matters stand, my fridge is packing more heat than it has any right to be packing, considering its name.

Luckily an excess of chilies is exactly what you want when you are also about to have an excess of turkey (or, in my case, as I've already had three Thanksgivings worth of recipe testing this month, when you already have an excess of turkey).

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Turkey and chilies go remarkably well together. Heck, the turkey's even the national bird of Mexico, or at least it would have been had the Golden Eagle and a half dozen other birds in line for the job in front of it had posed slightly less imposing silhouettes on a coat of arms. It is, however, widely consumed in Mexico.

Pavo en mole—turkey in a sauce of ground chilies, spices, seeds, and chocolate—is considered by many food historians and writers to be the pinnacle of Mexican cuisine, and this time I'm telling the truth.

Chicken is too mild—it gets overpowered in a chili-based sauce. Beef works, but becomes a different beast entirely. Pork is more naturally paired with acidic green sauces. Only turkey has the just the right ratio of bland background flavor to slightly funky forward flavor to be enveloped by a chili-based sauce, but not overwhelmed by it.*

*This last paragraph, while not filled with outright lies, is at least an exaggeration of a hyperbole, but bear with me.

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Of course, the last thing anybody wants to do is to make a complex sauce with 40+ ingredients the day after Thanksgiving just to make use of a few leftovers. So what do you do? How about just make a much simpler turkey tortilla soup instead.

Honestly, turkey tortilla soup is much better than chicken tortilla soup, and it comes together really fast. Some versions of tortilla soup are tomatoey. I prefer mine with just chilies, good stock, and a few aromatics (though a can of tomatoes wouldn't kill it). A mix of many chilies works, but a simple blend of ancho, pasilla, and a couple of canned chipotles gives it plenty of rich, fruity flavor with a touch of smoke from the chipotles.

You can, of course, use pre-ground chili powder if you'd like. As with my Texas Chili recipe, I like to simmer my chilies in chicken stock before pureeing them rather than grinding them first. You end up with a much smoother texture.

A fresh poblano and onion sautéed in oil before the remaining ingredients are added add some bright aroma to the mix, and a garnish of sliced scallions, diced avocado, and a handful of cilantro give you some nice freshness.

As for the namesake fried tortillas, bagged chips work just fine, but freshly fried strips achieve that elusive tender-but-crunchy texture that are the hallmark of the best tortilla soup.

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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