Saturday, May 19, 2012

Returning to Mexico City


It had been a long time.


Yet, when I landed in Mexico City, I headed into the subway, and I slid right back in. Back into the habits I developed there, as a student, five years ago--Habits like keeping your eyes peeled for bustling taco joints or a decent looking burger cart, and habits like planting your buttocks firmly into the subway seat to avoid sliding into your neighbour's lap when the driver inevitably slams on the breaks.

My visit to Mexico City, as incongruous as this might sound, felt like a breath of fresh air. The bustling, the shouting, the smoke rising from makeshift grills on the sidewalk--it got my heart pumping, and left me grinning ear to ear.
  
The last meal I had, before my flight out, was a sopa Azteca, that slightly-too-ubiquitous "tortilla soup" you find in Mexican restaurant menus here in Canada. But this one was rich, and complex.

To recreate it at home, and I went straight to Diana Kennedy, the doyenne and archivist of traditional Mexican recipes. The closest thing I could find is her recipe for sopa Tarasca, in her book, The Art of Mexican Cooking. Kennedy explains that there are two types of Tarascan soup: this one, which is close to tortilla soup, and another that is made with a base of pureed beans.

The flavour of this soup comes from its ancho chiles. Anchos are dried poblano peppers, dark red, smoky and aromatic. You can find them, along with your epazote and Mexican oregano, in Latino markets (if you live in Toronto, Kensington Market has it all).

Maybe you’ve noticed that I don’t have a photo of my soup. My apologies—I wasn’t planning on posting the recipe on the blog. The picture above is from Mexico City’s Central de Abastos, a colossal wholesale market that feeds 80% of the city.

Sopa Tarasca, or Tortilla Soup
Adapted from Diana Kennedy’s recipe in The Art of Mexican Cooking
Serves 4 as lunch, or as a substantial starter

For the broth:
½ cup water
½ lb tomatoes, roughly chopped, with skin and juices
1 very small onion, sliced
2 ancho chilies, stem off, deseeded, deveined and soaked in hot water for 
            10 minutes
1 corn tortilla
1 tablespoon safflower or sunflower oil
5 cups chicken broth
1 or 2 sprigs of dried epazote
A few good pinches of Mexican oregano
Salt, to taste

For all the wonderful stuff that goes into that broth:
6 more corn tortillas, cut into strips, and shallow fried in oil until golden and
 crisp
3 more ancho chilies, stem off, deseeded, deveined, pounded flat, torn into
garnish sized bits, and very briefly fried in a bit of oil
A good handful of cubed or torn fresh mild Mexican cheese (such as
asadero), or crumbled queso a├▒ejo
Crema fresca or sour cream to drizzle
1 avocado, cubed
4 small radishes, thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges, to serve

Instructions:
In a blender, combine the water, tomatoes, onion, drained ancho chilies, and tortilla. Puree until smooth.

In a heavy soup pot, heat the safflower oil, and pour the puree into the pot. On medium high heat, fry for about 8 minutes, mixing frequently. Stay close, and make sure it doesn’t burn. It may spatter.

And the chicken broth and the epazote, and gently simmer for ten to fifteen minutes. Season with salt and Mexican oregano.

In each of the four bowls, arrange the fried tortilla strips. Gently ladle the broth over the strips. Arrange the remaining ingredients, except for the lime, on each soup (some may sink, some will remain prettily on top). Serve immediately with lime wedges to squeeze.  

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