Chicken Tortilla Soup

12th April, 2010: Posted by G.L. Pease in Moderate, Soups

Based on a Rick Bayless recipe

This is a remapping of one of Rick Bayless’s recipes for those who want a more hands-on approach to the dish. As usual, we’ll do everything we can to extract the most flavor possible from the ingredients, creating something absolutely delicious, and almost 100% scratch made. We use tinned tomatoes, simply becuase it’s really hard to get fantastic fresh tomatoes during the cooler months, when a hearty, spicy soup like this is most welcome, and also just becuase they’re really good. Choose a quality brand, preferably all natural. The fire roasting brings up the smoky flavours of the soup.

The method isn’t tedious, but it does take some care. We’ll golden-brown the chicken, rendering some of its fat in which we’ll cook the onions. Then, the chicken gets another turn in the pot, browning to deliver more of its chickeny goodness.

The chicken stock is pretty basic, spiced up a little with pequin and tepin chilies. It gets a south of the border flair from the Mexican oregano and epazote. The real exquisite goodness of this soup, though, comes from making the stock yourself from real chicken, instead of relying on the flavorless chicken colored liquid that comes out of a tin.

Ingredients – serves 6

  • 2 Fresh Pasilla chiles, fire roasted and cut into small pieces (prepare these in advance)
  • 1 14oz tin Fire Roasted tomatoes
  • 1 White onion, peeled, sliced 1/4″ thick (see Method)
  • 6-8 chicken thighs – skin on (that’s where the flavor is!)
  • 4 medium cloves fresh garlic, whole, gently crushed
  • 1 T Mexican oregano – dried
  • 2-4 dried Tepin chilies
  • 2-4 dried Pequin chilies
  • 2 t dried Epazote
  • 4 stalks celery, cut in half
  • 4 carrots, cut in half

For serving:

  • Limes – quartered lengthwise
  • Avocados – peeled and sliced
  • Fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Shredded cheese, like Asadero, Jack, or a combination
  • Mexican crema, crème fraîche, or sour cream

Method – active time, about an hour; total time, about 3 hours

Rinse and dry chicken thighs, and season with salt and pepper.

In a 10qt stockpot over medium-high heat, add 2T cooking oil, and brown the chicken, skin-side down, until golden.

While the chiken is browning, slice your onion. (Once cut, onions begin to get “strong,” so it’s best not to slice them ahead of time.)

Once the fat has been rendered from the chicken, and its skin is golden, remove it from the pot, and set aside. Toss the onion in the chicken fat over medium heat until it just begins to color. Remove the onion rings, drain the oil, and set aside.

Return the chicken to the pot, and continue browning until it’s got good color. Remember, brown equals delicious; black equals burned. Use your nose!

Deglaze the pan with a little dry vermouth, preferably, or a dry white wine. Just a splash will disolve some of the goodies, and it’ll add another layer of deliciousness to the soup!

Cover the chicken with 2.5 quarts of water. Add oregano, celery, carrots, dried chilies, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer, cover, and leave for at least 2 hours, checking frequently.

Add the epazote during the last 15 minutes of cooking.

While stock is simmering…

Put the roasted pasillas, cooked onions, and the fire-roasted tomatoes into a blender, and purée until smooth. This will be added to the soup once the stock is finished.

Now that about 2 hours have passed…

It’s time to do something with the stock. Remove the stockpot from the heat, and set it aside to settle down a little. Strain the liquid into another pot, and set aside the chicken parts to cool. Use a fat separator, if you have one, or carefully skim the stock to get rid of much of the chicken fat.

Over medium-high heat, bring the stock back to a boil, and add the puréed pasilla mixture, stirring to incorporate. Take a moment to smell the wonderful aromas coming out of the pot, and it’s only beginning!

Remove the chicken from the bones, cut into small pieces, and return to the soup. Correct seasoning.

And, ready to serve…

Crumble a handful of tortilla chips into each serving bowl. Cover with soup. Top with fresh cilantro, shredded cheese, avocado, a lime quarter, and a dollop of Mexican crema or sour cream.

Squeeze the lime juice over the soup, and linger in the wonderful aromas that rise from its surface. It’s an amazing soup, and though the recipe seems long, it’s really quite simple to do. The extra effort of making the stock from chicken is really worth it, resulting in a much more delicious soup. It holds well in the fridge for several days, and, like all soups, it’s even better the second day.


To roast the pasillas, put them directly on the fire, turning occasionaly until the skin is black and blistered. They won’t catch fire. Then, place them on a plate, and cover with a bowl. The bowl will let them sweat, loosening the charred skin, and will retain any smoke, adding to their smoky goodness. When cool, simply rub off the charred skin, de-seed, and they’re ready to use.

Epazote is a Mexican herb that has no equivalent. The aroma is a truly wondrous combination of citrus and railroad tie, but it’s that almost creosote-like quality that makes it so unique. Get it dried at your local Mexican grocers.

The tiny pequin chili is quite hot and very flavourful. The tepin, also known as chiltepin is even hotter, but it, too, has a unique flavor. If you can get fresh, they’re even better, with a fresher taste and aroma, but dried are good, and are easily found in the same stores that will have the epazote, and they’re a wonderful addition to the spicy food lover’s pantry. Store in tightly sealed jars.

For added interest, add a roasted tomatillo to the pur̩e, or perhaps some nopalitos Рthe prepared flesh of prickly pear cactus pads.

Even if you can’t get the epazote or the chilies mentioned, this still makes a great tasting soup. Spice it up with cayenne (or a few drops of Fatal Attraction!) add a little extra oregano, some parsley. Use your imagination, and make it your own!

2 Responses

  1. Jon Burton Says:

    This is a MUST TRY dish! After my first time through, I knew that it would be a permanent part of my card box.

    When I made it, I couldn’t find all the peppers. That was in Phoenix AZ, now I’m back home in Southern Ohio and I have NO chance of finding them. Still, it was a very robust and plenteous dish, that I think stands-up to a pretty good amount of additions, and subtractions if the circumstances insist. Likewise, it can be steered one way or the other based on the desire of the eater, in that it can be spiced up to 11 yet still let the flavors of the base ingredients speak, and/or you can use a heavy hand with the cheese and cream and avocado to cool it down. I imagine it is pretty had to make this soup “bad”, but I also believe there is a sweet spot that can be found in the balance of the ingredients (likely for most users, I think, to be as the recipe is written). The tongue luxuriates on a firm bed of richly spiced chicken and vegetables, and is comforted under a soft blanket of cream, cheese, lime, and soft ripe avocado.

    Now, while this dish does offer some of my favorite flavors, the reason I fell so hard for this dish in the most part is its effect. This soup satisfies the tongue, the spirit, and the body. It satisfies the tongue, and through it, the mind, with its wide and yet complimentary taste structure. If offers so many diverse, yet harmonious flavors that it leaves the eater’s palate wanting for nothing. It is the essence of a comfort food. It’s soft, and warm, spiced and creamy. And your body feels light, and refreshed, yet satisfied and nourished.

    Try it!! You can’t go wrong, and won’t be sorry!!

  2. glpease Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Jon. Glad you enjoyed it!