When we think about food, nourishment is an obvious component to eating, but some recipes do more than feed just our bellies; they link the past with the future. Most of us can come up with at least one dish that’s been in our families forever—that caries stories, events, memories onto the plate each time it’s served. But what about those dishes that don’t stem from great, great aunt whomever and still reach back to our parents and forward to our children? Jaime’s found one such dish in her Chicken Tortilla Soup; before she moved back to the area, she discovered the soup at a fantastic little restaurant in Seattle called Azteca, but she couldn’t find a place that served it just right in Sacramento. So she decided to make it herself. With a little help from Tyler Florence and a few tweaks of her own, she now has this go-to recipe. The soup is such a hit with Jaime’s family that each time her mother’s throat heats up and sinuses fill, Jamie knows the perfect cure. Right away, she begins chopping onion and garlic, slicing tomato and chicken because this recipe has become her mother’s favorite chicken soup. The recipe offers Jaime an opportunity to comfort and heal her mother with each cold; it’s her way of giving back to a mom who handed her six year-old daughter some cash and sent to the store her across the street to buy refried beans, alone. To some, this may sound tantamount to neglect, especially today. To Jaime’s mom, though, it was a lesson in independence, a chance to teach her daughter a life skill. For this and many other such lessons, Jaime is grateful. She makes her mom Tortilla Soup as a thank-you for all her mother taught her about self-sufficiency.
From her mother, Jaime learned how to care for herself, but in the process she also learned to care for her new family. Though her childhood snacks consisted of chips and soda, through her pregnancy Jaime learned the importance of eating simple, healthy food, and her daughter has become a great motivator for Jaime to pursue recipes that utilize fresh, unpreserved ingredients. She now prefers buying local and organic and shopping at farmers markets. She also limits the packaged food she buys; if it has more than five ingredients, she doesn’t buy it.
The reason for this care and attention to the food Jamie selects becomes clear when her daughter clamors into the room from outside. She is sprightly, cornsilk hair shining, eyes gleaming. She bounces over to where her apron hangs off a chair and dons it as if she’s done so every day of her life. When she grabs the back of the chair almost twice her size and drags it to the stove, it’s obvious she’s learning the same lessons of independence that Jaime learned from her own mom.
The two of them hover in front of the gas stove appearing opposite, one tall and dark, the other small and bright, but their connection is visceral as they lean toward one another, speaking that language only mothers and their children can understand—more murmurs and gestures than words. Garlic, onion, jalapeño, grilled chicken, these smells waft through the house inviting the eater in. It may have been a surprise not to find Jaime’s mom walking through the door, but this cooking session was about comfort food and bonding, not healing.
CHICKEN TORTILLA SOUP (serves 4)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium white onions, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 jalapenos, seeded and minced
- 3 ripe medium tomatoes, chopped
- 1 quart chicken stock
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Canola oil, for pan-frying
- 8 corn tortillas, cut into 1/8-inch-thick strips
- 1 1/2 cups shredded cooked chicken (Jaime likes to grill 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts seasoned with salt and pepper for this recipe)
- 2 avocados, halved, pitted, peeled, and diced
- 1 cup shredded Jack cheese, optional
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
- 1 lime, cut in wedges, for serving
Place a stockpot over medium heat and coat with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onions, garlic, jalapenos, and tomatoes; cook, stirring for 15 minutes until the vegetables are cooked down and pulpy. Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the chopped grilled chicken or shredded cooked chicken at the very end of cooking.
Meanwhile, heat 1-inch of canola oil in a skillet over medium-high flame. When the oil begins to smoke, add the tortilla strips in batches and fry until they are crisp on all sides. Remove to a paper towel-lined platter and sprinkle with salt while they are still hot.
Ladle the hot soup into 4 soup bowls, top with the diced avocado and fried tortilla strips (and cheese if using). Garnish with cilantro and serve with lime wedges.