Although chicken tortilla soup is a staple on Mexican restaurant menus from the most basic mom-and-pop restaurant to high-end restaurants, it is not served in all regions of Mexico. It originated in Mexico City and is served in that particular region; as the people from that region migrated north, so did the recipe. While the basic soup recipe is made with only a few ingredients, what you serve with it can make it either a simple starter or the star of the show.
Tortilla soup is made by first blackening onions, garlic and tomatoes under a broiler or in a heavy skillet. These are pureed in a blender until smooth, along with seeded and rehydrated dried chiles such as pasilla or guajillo. To intensify the flavors, this mixture is fried in a little oil to make a paste before chicken broth is added to make the soup base. Some chefs add epazote to flavor the soup, but many cooks leave this out or use fresh mint instead. Corn tortillas sometimes are blended into the soup to thicken.
For a multicourse meal, tortilla soup may be served as a starter. In a shallow bowl, make a small mound of cooked, shredded chicken breast. Pour heated soup base around the chicken and top it with fried tortilla strips. Garnish the soup with a few cilantro leaves and crumbled queso fresco or feta cheese, which is a suitable substitute if queso fresco is not available. Follow the soup with an avocado and mango salad then grilled steak or fish to create an elegant meal. For a casual meal, serve more traditional dishes such as enchiladas and a guacamole salad. Follow this meal with a light sorbet or fruit dessert for a sweet finish.
What you add to the soup and how you serve it may change it from being a start to a meal to the main course. Add shredded chicken, grilled corn and black beans to the soup as it simmers. Serve the soup in a tureen and set out bowls of various toppings to add at the table. Cubes of avocado, tortilla strips, shredded cabbage, grated cheddar or queso fresco, cilantro and lime wedges are a few ideas. A traditional topping is fried dried chiles, which add an earthy quality to the finished soup.To make them, seed dried pasilla, guajillo or New Mexican chile pods and tear them into small pieces. Fry the pods in vegetable oil until they are fragrant and slightly darkened. Crumble them on top of the soup along with the other toppings. Tortilla soup served in this manner can be a very filling and inexpensive option for a party as well.
Beer, especially light-bodied Mexican varieties, are a casual option. Of course, tequila-based drinks such as a classic margarita are another cold beverage option. While wine is not always considered a Mexican beverage, a slightly earthy lighter red such as pinot noir or a bright, citrus white such as sauvignon blanc are perfect partners for the soup, especially if you are serving it as part of a larger meal. For those who are not drinking alcohol, sparkling limeade or an aqua fresca made with pineapple and melon could make a festive accompaniment whether the soup is at the beginning of a larger meal or the meal itself.