I've made plenty of tortilla soups from cookbooks over the years, but none has pleased me as much as the simple one I improvised last week. Although my gut tells me that means it was the kind of success that comes only when the planets are aligned, I want to share the recipe because it's an ideal one for fridge-clearing. It's so flexible that it could be called tortilla soup with or without tortillas.
Since I had made tostadas with poached chicken the night before, I had everything on hand, including a pot of homemade broth. But there's so much going on in this soup that you can skip one or two ingredients if necessary. As long as most of the ingredients make their way into the pot, this is really a meal in a bowl. If you're really starving, you might want to add a black bean salad on the side: dress a drained and rinsed can of beans with olive oil, sherry vinegar, a smidge of the chopped onion, some cilantro, a quarter teaspoon ground cumin, and salt and pepper. Adding two chicken legs and a can of beans to this meal will take you only 15 cents over budget and will make for very hearty eating indeed.
Note: Tortilla strips can also be baked in oven. Cut tortillas into strips, brush with 2 tablespoons oil, and bake at 400 degrees until crisp, about 10 minutes, stirring once. For an easier variation, replace the tortilla strips with shredded romaine hearts. Bouillon and water can be used in place of broth. Leftover roast chicken works, or you can poach two legs, reserving the liquid for the soup. I use pepper jack, but any jack, queso fresco, or feta works.
Shopping list: tortillas (pro-rated), $0.50; 1 small onion, $0.25; 1 zucchini, $0.75; 1 tomato, $1.00; 1 ear corn, $0.33; cilantro, $1.00; 2 ounces pepper jack, $0.50. Optional: two chicken legs, or use leftover cooked chicken.
Pantry items: oil, salt, garlic, chili powder, broth or bouillon powder, pepper.
Total cost (to serve 2): $4.33
- 1 cup canola oil
- 2 corn tortillas cut into 1/3-inch strips (see note)
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 small onion, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon chili powder (or 1 ground arbol chili combined with 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano)
- 6 cups low-sodium chicken broth (see note)
- 1 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup)
- 1 medium tomato, chopped (about 1/2 cup, or 1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes)
- Kernels from 1 ear corn (about 3/4 cup, or 3/4 cup frozen corn)
- 1/2 cup diced or shredded cooked chicken (optional)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- 2 ounces grated or crumbled pepper jack, jack, or feta
Add canola oil to heavy-bottomed 12-inch cast iron pan and set over high heat until shimmering, about 2 minutes (test oil temperature by dropping single tortilla strip in—it should bubble rapidly). Add strips and stir well to coat with oil. Stir once per minute until strips begin to stiffen and color, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until strips are as crisp and tanned, a few minutes longer. Use slotted spoon to remove to paper-towel-lined plate and salt lightly.
Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed three-quart saucepan over medium high heat until shimmering. Add onion, turn heat to medium low, and cook, stirring frequently, until very soft and translucent but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and chili powder and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Pour in broth and bring to a boil. (If using bouillon powder, add water, bring to boil, and stir in powder before proceeding.) Add zucchini to pot, adjust heat so liquid simmers, and simmer 5 minutes. Add tomato and simmer 2 minutes. Add corn (and chicken, if using) and simmer 3 minutes. Taste zucchini for doneness; in the unlikely event that it is not yet ready to eat, simmer a minute or two more. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately with tortillas, cilantro, and cheese.