Monday, April 20, 2009

Red Hot Chile Peppers

I know it's been awhile since I've updated the blog; I apologize. Thanks to the freedom afforded by an outpatient month with free weekends and some vacation time, B and I have been traveling a fair amount. First we went to Santa Fe (for fun), then San Diego (for a parental visit), then back to San Francisco (for the workweek), then down to Los Angeles (for a wedding), and now home again (back for work and, of course, blogging).

I hadn't been to New Mexico in about fifteen years (a.k.a. half my lifetime). What a fascinating place! From the Georgia O'Keeffe museum (a veritable gem), to the beautiful handmade Native American jewelry, to the dry, windswept mountains and plains, to the fascinating nuclear history, to the Pueblo Indian ruins, to the petroglyphs (did I mention that I love national parks, or was it obvious?): wow.

All over Santa Fe, we saw hanging dried chiles. They are called ristras, and bring good luck and visitors to homes or establishments that display them.

The ristras are also useful when the component chiles are employed in their primary purpose: cooking. Not surprisingly, chiles pervade the cuisine of New Mexico. Sometimes they are picked green (to make green chile sauce) and sometimes red (to make red chile sauce). Though each color reportedly has strong advocates, the more indecisive among us can ask for, say, a serving of enchiladas either "Christmas-style" or "divorciados" to get both colors and flavors on one plate. B and I chose this option more than once.

But now B and I are back from our various adventures. And now that we are, the weather has been truly unbelievable. I don't think it's global warming, or at least I hope not, but this is the third year in a row with a beautifully warm weekend in April. The temperature rose above 90 degrees (NINETY!) in my everlastingly sixty-degree city today. Note: San Francisco houses weren't built for these sorts of temperature extremes. It is often drafty in here in the winter, and just now is it starting to feel slightly less oppressive indoors. The weather makes me miss Palo Alto. And makes me down even more iced tea than usual.

It also makes me want to avoid the oven. I used the stove instead, and made a batch of tortilla soup. So many soups are better with a little crunch (think of the croutons topping a hearty minestrone), and the freshly-fried tortilla strips are a deliciously crispy counterpoint to the rich soup. Even though I'd made this recipe before, the smoky heat of the New Mexico chiles took me right back to vacationland. There's a part of me that really enjoys spicy food when it's hot outside (I guess the entire subcontinent feels this way too, or we wouldn't have such interesting flavors and spice in Indian cuisine). The avocado relish puts a fresh, California-style spin on a classic soup, and allows the brightness of fresh cilantro to shine through. With the relish, the colors of the soup will end up being "Christmas-style," even if the recipe really only uses dried red chiles.

The soup is a little time-consuming, but the effort required to fry tortilla strips for the garnish is exemplified in their superior taste. (Apparently, I'm a big fan of fried food.) The rest of the steps, including broiling the tomatoes and onion for the base, toasting and soaking the dried chiles, simmering the tortilla-laden broth, and tossing together the avocado garnish, are individually quick and follow logically upon each other. The soup benefits from good-quality chiles; look for deep red ones about four or five inches long. The ones I buy are generically labeled as "From New Mexico," but you can also use ancho or guajillo or a mix as the original Gourmet recipe calls for. Using four, as I recommend below, will make a spicy soup, but you can certainly halve the number to two. The leftover soup and garnish keep well in the fridge up to a week, and the strips will stay crispy inside a Ziploc for about the same amount of time, allowing for repeat, reheated trips to vacationland. Enjoy!

Tortilla Soup

Serves: 6 as a first-course or 4 as a main dish
Time: one and a half hours

For the soup:
1 white or yellow onion, peeled and quartered
5 plum tomatoes
6 garlic cloves, peeled
4 dried New Mexico chiles
8 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon kosher salt
12 white corn tortillas
vegetable oil, for frying

For the avocado relish:
1 1/2 to 2 ripe avocados, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 white or yellow onion, finely chopped
2 T. fresh cilantro, chopped
juice of 1/2 lime
1 t. salt

First, broil the vegetables. Preheat broiler. Meanwhile, place onion, tomatoes, and garlic in one layer in an ovenproof pan (I use a Pyrex dish). Broil several inches from heat, turning once, until tomato skins are blistered and charred, approximately 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove stems and seeds from chiles while heating a large soup pot over moderate heat. Toast chiles, pressing down with tongs, ten seconds on each side, or until more pliable and beginning to become fragrant. Transfer chiles to a bowl. Cover with hot water and soak for about 20 minutes to soften further.

Drain chiles, discarding soaking liquid, and puree with broiled vegetables in a blender or Cuisinart until smooth, using caution when blending hot liquids. Return mixture to soup pot, along with chicken stock, oregano, and salt, simmering slowly.

Cut 6 tortillas into quarters and 6 into 1/4-inch-wide strips. In a large wok or deep-fryer, heat vegetable oil to 375 degrees. Fry tortilla quarters and strips in batches, turning frequently, until crisp and pale golden. With tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle tortilla strips with salt to taste. Finely crush tortilla quarters with a rolling pin or your fingers, and add to stock and broiled vegetable puree. Simmer until tortillas are soft and soup is thickened, 20 to 30 minutes.

Make relish while soup is simmering, by gently stirring together all ingredients in a small bowl.

Ladle soup into each bowl. Spoon two tablespoons or so of avocado relish on top, and arrange tortilla strips. Serve immediately.

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