Chicken Tortilla Soup

By Katherine

Elissa has already blogged about the joys of slow-cookery, and specifically Slow Cooker Revolution from America's Test Kitchen, but I'm here to pile on.  There's something so great about arriving home from work to a great-smelling house and a dinner that's already ready.  One of my favorite recipes in the book is for tortilla soup, which I made earlier this week to stave off some of the gray fogginess we start getting in San Diego this time of year.  Here's how it goes....

Ready to get cooking

Ready to get cooking

Chicken Tortilla Soup (adapted for my taste and laziness from Slow Cooker Revolution)  

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 plum tomatoes, chopped

1 onion, minced

2 jalapenos, stemmed, seeded, and minced

6 cloves of garlic, minced

3 chipotle chiles in adobo, with sauce, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

8 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Stems from one bunch of cilantro, tied together with twine (about 25 stems) 

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes: crushed tortilla chips, crumbled Cotija cheese, avocado, minced cilantro, lime wedges

Saute tomatoes, onion, and jalapenos in oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  When onion is softened, add garlic, chipotles, and tomato paste and cook briefly (1 minute will do) until everything is a melded together and smelling good. Stir in 1 cup of broth and scrape up all the tasty brown bits on the bottom of the pan, then transfer the mixture to the slow cooker. 

Add the remaining broth and cilantro stems to the slow cooker, then add the chicken thighs (gently so as not to splash the broth all over the kitchen). Set the slow cooker to low and leave it alone for the next 4-6 hours.  I set mine for five hours, but then it sat around for another 2 hours on "keep warm" until I got home from work, and it suffered no ill effects. 

Use tongs to remove the chicken from the soup and shred it using two forks. Fish out the cilantro stems and toss them, then return the chicken to the soup.  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper, if desired.   Serve by placing crushed tortilla chips in bowls, then ladling soup over the top, and topping with cheese, avocado, cilantro, and lime. 

The garnishes

The garnishes

The finished soup

The finished soup

A few tips. . . this makes a pretty spicy soup.  If you're not a fan of the heat, reduce the amount of chipotle chiles.  While we're on the subject of chipotles in adobo, I never use a whole can at once, and I hate to waste what's leftover.  What I do is portion the remaining chipotles (with their sauce) into ziploc sandwich bags - usually about 2 chiles in each bag - then put them in the freezer.  The chipotles are pretty fragrant, so I usually put the sandwich bags into a large freezer bag to try to keep the whole freezer from smelling like chipotles. You can pull out an individual bag whenever you need a chipotle, and they defrost pretty quickly - about 30 minutes on the counter, or you can speed it up by putting them in lukewarm water.  

Since this recipe calls for sauteing the vegetables before putting them in the slow cooker, it can be a scramble to pull it all together on a weekday morning if you're trying to get out the door to work/school/whatever.  I recommend prepping everything the night before, including doing the saute, then you can put the cooked vegetables in the fridge overnight and just pop them in the slow cooker in the morning. Finally, I used some soy and flax tortilla chips for this batch, because that bag was open and I like to operate under the illusion that there's such a thing as a healthy chip, but their texture in the soup was a little strange.  I would use regular tortilla chips if you have them instead - which is what I've used for the leftover soup, with great results. 

El Charco

By Katherine

Every now and then, my job sends me to the courthouse in Chula Vista, which is in the southernmost part of San Diego County, nestled right next to the Mexico border.  Although this means more commute time for me, I always get a little excited about heading down there, because there is a lot of truly great Mexican food nearby.  On my most recent trip to Chula Vista, I know just where I wanted to grab lunch:  El Charco.  I recruited my friend Marissa, who is always game for a food adventure, and we set out in search of new and tasty bites from our neighbors down south. 

El Charco is a relatively new restaurant -- I believe it opened in December 2012 -- and it bills itself as "Mexico City Style Tacos."  I was tipped off to its existence by this thread on Chowhound, where I am an obsessive lurker and infrequent poster.  We have taco shops serving carne asada (steak), carnitas (pork), and pollo asado (chicken) tacos and burritos on nearly every corner in San Diego. But from what I had read, I knew El Charco had some unique items on its menu. 

First up:  chicharron de queso, or fried cheese.  When I hear fried cheese, I immediately think of those breaded mozzarella sticks from TGI Friday's/Chili's/Applebee's/etc. This is an entirely different animal. 

 

Chicharron de queso

Chicharron de queso

It is almost like a thin crepe made of crispy cheese. The appearance and texture reminded me a bit of a South Indian dosa, since it is very light but a bit crackly.  El Charco served it with fresh, chunky guacamole, which was an excellent accompaniment.  It's like eating chips and guacamole, except the chips are made out of cheese.  Marissa and I decided that it is heaven.  For any of you out there who must try this but are not within reach of El Charco, it looks like Rick Bayless has a solid recipe here

For my main course, I chose the sopes, which are thick corn tortillas topped with refried beans, meat, lettuce, cheese, and sour cream.  I had my choice of meats, and I decided to sample a variety, with one sope each of chorizo, al pastor, and carne asada. 

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The sopes themselves were great -- crisp on the outside but soft in the middle. My favorite meat of the three was the chorizo, which was salty and spicy and delicious.  Our meal also came with a delightful assortment of fresh salsas and garnishes, which I enjoyed experimenting with on the sopes.   

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I think my favorite was the thin avocado salsa, which is second to right on the bottom row.  

Marissa ordered the alambres, which is meat skewered and grilled with bell peppers, onions, and bacon.  At El Charco, It is then served off the skewer over fresh tortillas, and you have the option of adding cheese (it was a cheesy kind of day, so Marissa said yes please).  Again, you have your choice of meats, and our waitress suggested chuleta, or pork chop, so Marissa went with that. 

Alambres de chuleta

Alambres de chuleta

This was seriously delicious, and a very hearty portion -- order this at your own risk if you have to go back to work afterward.  This was also a great dish for dressing up with the various salsas to cut through the richness of the pork, cheese, and bacon.  We left this meal totally stuffed and eager to go back to try more of the menu.  I should also note that the staff at El Charco was very helpful and friendly, even though we were two pretty clueless gringas.  I can't wait until I get sent to Chula Vista again for work!