Vegetable Tortilla Soup
Vegetable Tortilla Soup

Tortilla soup is a Mexican staple, and there are as many versions of it as there are cooks. Corn tortillas are the unifying ingredient in all recipes. Try to find fresh handmade tortillas for a more authentic flavor. Cut them as below and dry them out by leaving them on the counter for an hour before cooking.

Tortilla soup can be very spicy or rather mild, depending upon what chilies are included. A crumbled dried chili is sprinkled on top of the soup here so you can control just how much heat you want in your bowl. The pasilla chili, a dried chilaca, can be a mild to medium-hot, rich-flavored chili. If you want extra heat, try a chipotle or ancho chili

This simple Mexican soup is a great vegetarian first course. Zucchini and carrots give the soup substance and the fire-roasted tomatoes add an extra dimension of flavor. Baking the tortillas instead of the traditional frying method keeps the soup a light soup alternative.

For the cheese, select the traditional queso fresco or shredded Monterey Jack. For an extra kick try Manchego with its slightly nutty flavor or Cotija, a dried, sharp, aged goat's milk cheese similar to Pecorino Romano (it's been called "The Parmesan of Mexico").

The tortilla strips should be added at the last minute to preserve their crisp texture. Shredded cheese, crumbled dry chili, diced avocado and fresh chopped cilantro leaves not only add robust flavor but also create a beautiful presentation. A squirt of limejuice brings all the flavors together. I like to serve this with ice-cold Mexican beer.

Vegetable Tortilla Soup

Serves 4

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 (14 1/2) ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes, or regular diced tomato, with juice

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 quart vegetable broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 zucchini, cut into matchsticks

1 carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks

4 corn tortillas, preferably stale or at least dry, halved crosswise and sliced into thin strips

1 dried pasilla chili

2 teaspoons fresh limejuice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack Cheese

1. In a medium soup pot, heat the oil over a medium heat. Add the onion and saute until golden brown, making sure the mixture does not burn, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cilantro, and saute another minute. Add the tomatoes and cumin, and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Add the broth. Remove from the heat and puree until smooth in the pot using a hand blender.

2. Return the soup to the heat. Add the zucchini and carrot, and simmer, partially covered, over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally or until it is slightly thickened and the vegetables are tender. Taste for seasoning.

3. While the soup is cooking, prepare the toppings. To toast the tortilla strips, preheat the oven to 400 F. Place the tortilla strips on a baking sheet, spread them evenly over the pan. Bake for 7-8 minutes or until crisp and beginning to brown. Reserve for the garnish.

4. Place the chili in a nonstick skillet over medium high heat and toast for about 2 minutes on a side or until it is fragrant and puffed but not burnt. Remove the stem and the seeds; crush the chili in a mortar or with the side of a heavy knife and reserve for the garnish.

5. To serve: Ladle the soup evenly into each bowl. Squirt some limejuice over the soup. Garnish with the toasted tortilla strips, crushed chili, cilantro, avocado and cheese. Serve immediately.

Diane Rossen Worthington is an authority on new American cooking. She is the author of 18 cookbooks (click here), including "Seriously Simple Holidays: Recipes and Ideas to Celebrate the Season," and also a James Beard award-winning radio show host.

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