A few decades ago, when I first heard about tortilla soup, it was associated with Chef Dean Fearing. It was a signature dish served at The Mansion in Dallas, Texas, where he was head chef. In fact, in his cookbook, “The Texas Food Bible,” published in 2014, he claims that although the recipe was not originally his, it has always been so popular that it remains his “million-dollar baby!”
Indeed it is. Chef Fearing has his own restaurant now in Dallas called Fearing’s, located in the Ritz-Carlton, where tortilla soup remains on the menu. We’ve been lucky enough to dine there for both dinner and brunch, and the experiences were perfection.
Southwestern-inspired tortilla soup is a slightly spicy, tomato enriched soup. Tortillas are fried for garnish, as well as used in the soup for texture and flavor. But it’s the goodies that make this soup fabulous to me: smoked chicken, avocado, cheddar cheese, and some fun garnishes.
I’ve made many versions of this soup in my life, because many different versions are possible. It’s easy to add beans, roasted chile peppers and corn or hominy, for example, plus chipotle peppers or ancho chile paste for some depth. The possibilities are really endless.
Even though the purpose of this post was to present the actual Dean Fearing tortilla soup recipe, this soup will be another version yet again. I didn’t realize that the chicken is supposed to be smoked! I’d poached a whole chicken the day before in anticipation of making this soup!
I think my mistakes stemmed from a lengthy vacation away from my kitchen. Do you ever feel like you’ve forgotten how to cook after a couple weeks on holiday?!! I wasn’t in my cooking rhythm when I took on this soup!
Here is the original recipe, which Chef Fearing claims more represents the recipe’s Mexican roots, rather than his previous Southwestern version, with my five-cents worth in parentheses.
adapted from The Texas Food Bible
8 tablespoons olive oil
8 corn tortillas, cut into long strips and divided in half
8 garlic cloves, peeled
2 cups onion purée
6 cups chicken stock
4 cups fresh tomato purée
5 roasted ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh epazote or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 large bay leaf
Fresh lemon juice
1 cup small-dice smoked chicken breast
1 cup cubed avocado
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup finely diced cabbage
1/4 cup finely julienned red radish
1 tablespoon seeded and minced jalapeño chile
Heat about 5 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add one-half of the tortilla strips and fry, turning occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until very crisp. Carefully transfer to a double layer of paper towels to drain. Reserve.
(If you’re wondering why my tortillas aren’t yellow, it’s because they’re made from a whole-grain wheat and corn mixture, and worked just as well.)
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.
(I used the same pot to fry the tortilla strips and to make the soup.)
Add the garlic along with the remaining half of the tortilla strips and fry, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until the tortillas are crisp.
Add the onion purée and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
(I used chopped onions because the soup gets blended!)
Stir in the chicken stock and tomato purée along with the roasted anchos, jalapeños, epazote (or cilantro), cumin, coriander and bay leaf. Season with salt to taste, raise the heat, and bring to a boil.
(As you can see, the recipe lists “roasted ancho chiles.” I’m assuming Chef Fearing meant fresh chile peppers if they’re roasted, because you don’t roast dried chile peppers. But the fresh version of ancho chiles, shown below right in this Bon Appetit photo, are actually poblanos, a fresh chile pepper, shown below left. So I’m not sure what he meant. Without any poblanos, I went ahead and used 4 ancho chile peppers, which are dried poblanos. I know it’s confusing, but I would think the father of Southwestern cuisine would know his chile peppers.)
Lower the heat and cook at a gentle simmer for 40 minutes, skimming off any fat that rises to the surface.
Remove from the heat, transfer to a blender, and process to a smooth purée. If too thick, add chicken stock, a bit at a time, to reach a smooth soup consistency.
When ready to serve, place the soup in a large saucepan over low heat. Remove and discard the bay leaf (??? I thought it was puréed?) Season with lemon juice and cayenne and, if necessary, additional salt.
Place an equal portion of smoked chicken, avocado, cheese, cabbage, radish, minced jalapeño and reserved tortilla crisps in the center of each of four warm shallow soup bowls. Ladle 8 ounces of soup over the garnish and serve immediately.
(I actually only placed the chicken, avocado and cheese in the bowls before adding the hot soup base, then garnished with the remaining ingredients.)
(I don’t think Chef Fearing means equal portions, I think he meant 4 equal portions of each of the ingredients, since the soup serves four people.)
As I mentioned above, I’ll have to make the recipe again to see what it’s really supposed to taste like!
But I’m a little disappointed in the recipe. It’s not really written for home cooks, and a few things are unclear. There isn’t even a photo of the prepared soup!
Verdict: My husband said that he likes my tortilla soup better, and I’d have to agree, even though I’ve never made it the same way twice. I felt this soup was somewhat bland, in spite of the ancho chile peppers, fresh jalapenos, and the cayenne pepper. I guess I also enjoy black beans and corn, plus a little chipotle for texture and flavor. But to be fair, I didn’t exactly follow the recipe!
Maybe I need another vacation.