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There are certain dates that just seem to have some kind of cosmic significance. For Doc Brown, that date might be November 12, 1955. For me, it might be November 22, 2012. That was not only the day that I discovered the best jerk chicken I've ever eaten, behind a Detroit strip club—it was also the day that I bought myself the Martin mini guitar that has become my constant traveling companion, and the day that I first tried chicken enchilada soup.
The latter we bought from Le Dog, a bright red shack in downtown Ann Arbor that serves hot dogs and homemade soups. At the time, the menu changed every day, and the stand served over 400 different soups each year. So it really was a matter of luck that I happened to taste this particular soup on this particular day, and the likelihood that I'll ever have it from Le Dog again is close to zero.* The hut has since moved from its outdoor location to an indoor spot on Main Street, though I believe it still serves the same variety of soups.
* Though the creamy chicken tortilla soup that's always on the menu is similar and excellent!
It was love at first spoonful. The broth was rich and creamy, with a thick, tongue-coating texture that straddled that border between soup and stew. It had a savoriness from melted cheese and the spicy, toasty flavor of chilies, while still managing to be bright and fresh. Little nubs of sweet corn and black beans (canned, no doubt, but no less tasty for it) filled up each bite, along with tender bits of shredded chicken. It was like drinking deliciously inauthentic liquid enchiladas, and I couldn't think of anything I would have wanted more in that cold Michigan drizzle.
I haven't had that soup in three years now, and, in fact, I hadn't really thought about it much until this winter, when the shocking truth of the weather in San Mateo revealed itself: It gets cold here. I'm out and about in my backyard in a T-shirt and flip-flops while the sun is out, but as soon as it gets dark, the frost starts to form on the grass. That's the kind of temperature swing that demands a warm, rich soup.
If you do a web search for "chicken enchilada soup," the vast majority of the results are of the "open five cans and stir them together" type of recipe. Nothing wrong with that,** but it's just not typically how I cook at home. My goal was to make a chicken enchilada soup with a more complex, developed flavor, and the first step was to use whole dried chilies in lieu of canned enchilada sauce.
If there's one thing you can do to instantly improve any recipe that calls for chili powder, it's to replace it with a homemade chili purée made from whole dried chilies. Here, I start by simmering guajillo and ancho chilies in chicken stock, along with a whole split chicken breast, until the chilies are tender and the chicken is cooked through. Using bone-in, skin-on chicken helps add flavor and gives the chicken better texture.
Next, I purée the chilies in the blender along with a little of the stock and a block of cream cheese. I experimented with different types of cheese to give the soup the best body and flavor, and found that a mixture of cream cheese and shredded pepper jack cheese works best.
From there, the rest takes place in one pot: I sauté onions and garlic until tender, then add some fresh corn kernels (they've got a much better texture than canned for a quick-cooking soup like this), some drained canned black beans, chopped tomatoes, and some chopped Hatch chilies. (I keep a batch of them frozen throughout the year, though a good brand of canned Hatch chilies works fine in a soup.)
Finally, I stir the chili-infused broth and the chili–cream cheese purée back into the pot, shred up the chicken meat and stir it in, add a shot of lime juice and vinegar for brightness, and let it simmer just until the flavors come together.
I doubt that I'll ever have a chance to re-create that first Michigan soup experience (at least, not without the help of a modified DeLorean and a flux capacitor), but, to be honest, a soup-filled future is far more exciting than a soup-filled past.
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