Right on the corner of Franklin and Sterling in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, you’ll find one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, Chavela’s.
Full of decor that implies a love of Dia de los Muertos, everything from the walls to the bar top are adorned with skulls, horns, rich patterns and even a statuesque skeleton with a painted ‘gown.’ The mood is dark and rich, and the margaritas are on tap. The message is clear: expect debauchery..or at least really good guacamole.
Enough about all that, though. The food? Chile, listen.
There’s a sopa de tortilla here, though, that used to piss me off. And, I mean, piss me off. Not because it was terrible, no… quite the opposite. The soup was fabulous! I just couldn’t figure out what the hell was in it. I had to get that recipe.
I staked out that joint for months. Months. Just waiting. For what, you might ask?
For the right bartender to bribe. Someone was gonna cough up that recipe.
I’d finally thought I’d found my mark, and I bribed him good.
“I’ll tip you 100% if you get that tortilla soup recipe for me.”
He literally laughed hard enough that he needed to brace himself…
…but then he headed into that kitchen to see what he could do.
When he came out, he came followed by a kitchen employee prepared to spill the details. I’d whipped out my phone, all ready to record the recipe, but my hopes and dreams came crashing down on me.
“All I can tell you, is that there’s a reason it’s all green.”
Dawg. I’m not tipping for this. You could literally hear the record scratch in my mind. The bartender was clearly confused.
The staffer looked at me, “There’s nothing but green in it. That’s all I can tell you.” He heads back into the kitchen.
The bartender looks at me, lowkey scared. “I thought he was gonna give you the entire thing! I’m really sorry.”
Little did he know, he gave me way more than I thought I’d ever get, and apparently all I’d need to figure out the recipe.
I went home, on a mission. I could taste the fact that it wasn’t just a “water-based” soup. I could tell I’d need chicken, Mexican crema, mirepoix – you can always tell when you’re dealing with mirepoix – cilantro, lime, and probably a few peppers. But which ones? It was time to explore.
I hit up Whole Foods, and grabbed every damn green Mexican vegetable I could think of.
2 pounds of tomatillo, one massive green pepper, 1 jalapeno, one bunch of cilantro, 3 limes, and a little batch of green onion. 1 massive yellow onion, 2 giant carrots, a tablespoon of celery seed (which is what I use when I forget, like a genius, to buy celery; you’ll need a half-cup of diced celery for this recipe), 2 and a half pounds of chicken thigh (you can use breast, but… I can’t stand chicken breast and consider it a form of torture), a package of organic corn tortillas and a little over a tablespoon of salt. Yes, that’s a lot of salt, but this is a lot of soup.
In a large non-stick skillet – brown your chicken. Dice your onion into large chunks, cut your carrot into half-inch wide discs, and chop your celery into thin chunks. If your skillet isn’t non-stick, you might want to add a little bit of vinegar – apple cider, wine vinegar, regular white vinegar, whichever you pick – to the skillet just to make sure you’re not burning your chicken because there’s nothing to soften the blow of the heat against the skin. A couple of tablespoons should do the trick, nothing too crazy. The oil from the meat will eventually drain out, anyway. You just want to avoid the burned flavor in the soup.
Once a little of the fat has drained out of the meat, add your mirepoix – that’s your carrots, celery and onion. (If you’re going the celery seed route like me, hold off on that for now.) Cover your skillet, and cook for 5 minutes untouched. Prepare your stockpot on medium high (7 out of 10) heat completely empty, and then transfer your chicken to the pot using a long pair of tongs. Try to avoid dragging the fat from the skillet into your stockpot. (Not to worry – we’re not being anti-fat here, we’re just being conscious of the fact that there’ll still be fat in the chicken thigh to boil out into the stock… we don’t need to add that much more to the pot.)
Toss your veggies in the skillet one good time, then – with a slotted spoon, so as to avoid scooping the extra fat in – transfer your cooked mirepoix to the stockpot. (If you used celery seed instead of celery like me, here is where you’ll drop that in.) Here, you’ll add about 6 quarts of water, and cover your pot.
From here, it’s time to tend to these veggies.
See all that? All of it – except the cilantro and both jalapenos (you’ll only need one) is going in the blender.
The tomatilloes – your breadfruit for the Clean Eating Boot Camp – are far more simple than they might look. You’re not going to be eating those husks, so peel them off…
…and, rest assured that the bright, tangy, citrus-esque taste is nothing like your beloved tomato, no matter how much their names resemble one another.
If you’re worried about how to keep your tomatilloes, don’t – keep them in a plastic bag (much like the one you might’ve brought them home with) in your fridge, and they should keep well for about two weeks.
Blend your tomatilloes, minus the stems. Cut the stem out of your green pepper, chop that into giant chunks, and toss that in the blender, too – including the seeds. Chop the stem off of one jalapeno, and toss that into the blender too. Yes, with seeds. Also, drop in that tablespoon of salt in your blender. You’re not going for a full blown puree – which would look like tomato sauce – just a nice, fine chop, like pictures above.
Before you do anything else, you’ll want to pull your chicken thighs out of the pot, one by one, and separate the meat from the bones, discarding the bones entirely. (Set them aside for another stock, put them in the trash, whatever – just don’t give them to your dogs… they’ve been in onion.) The meat should fall away from the bone anyway, but be careful to not splatter. Pour all of your blended goodies into your stockpot, and stir. Cover, and let it cook for a good five minutes while you take care of your tortillas.
If you snatched hard shell corn tortillas, you’re a lucky bum. If you didn’t, you’ve got to bake yours to get them nice and hard.
(Are we still pretending to be grown ups? Yes? Shucks.)
I threw mine in the oven and baked them on 400 degrees for a good 10 minutes. I just needed them to be crispy. Once they got there, I crumbled up one and put it in the bottom of my bowl. You’ll also want to zest both of your limes, and set that aside. Squeeze the juice of both limes into your pot.
Ladle your soup on top of the broken tortilla shells. Take your cilantro, and with one well-positioned cut, separate the stems from the leaves. Set aside the stems – could use them for another stock! – and start chopping up your cilantro leaves.
Now, the original soup that we’re swiping this recipe from actually uses Mexican crema for topping… but I’m not here for that. Besides, I didn’t have any. So, we went with the next best thing: Greek yogurt. One nice dollop. Sprinkle a little bit of that lime zest over the top of your dollop, and toss a sizable amount – about two tablespoons – of cilantro over the top of your bowl. Break another tortilla and slide it in the side. Be fancy. Why not?
Eddy was the final decider, though – he’d been enjoying this restaurant for years before he’d even met me, so I’d need his taste buds to tell me if I was spot on.
“It’s almost perfect. It’s missing a little something, though. Just a little.”
Damn it. Gonna have to find a new bartender to bribe, now.