Soup's Up

These favorite soups from Tucson restaurant institutions are well worth the time it takes to make them

This week, we're all about soup, as my friend Sharon would say. I'm all about soup a lot, because it is one of the few things I know I do well.

I'm starting off with my favorite sopa of the past several months, following it with one of my faves of all time, and concluding with a little variation on the latter--"little" because, honestly, it's hard to make it better. And with recipes--much, much better than a free lunch.

Mother--She-Who-Was-To-Be-Obeyed--had two favorite restaurants in her latter years. One was Papagayo's; my brother and I suspected it was because she was sweet on the white-haired patrician who owned the place. Her other hangout was the Dish, and she liked it because she loved the food. A smart woman my momma was!

I have a deep fondness for the Dish, too, and particularly--these days--for its Poblano Soup. I've had it four times in the past two months, and each time it has been slightly different--from tear-makingly spicy (for which I asked, and added a dollop of crème fraiche) to incredibly pungent from the vegetable stock used in its making. It has consistently been satisfying to tastebud and soul. It's a little time-consuming, but most terrific soups are; I like making soup in phases, doing the final blend-and-simmer with friends who hang around the kitchen. This is perfect for that kind of phased cooking--you need a vegetable stock to which you then add the chile-based portion. Here are the recipes, direct from the Dish (and thank you, John):

Vegetable stock

  • 1 pound mushroom stems
  • 1/2 bunch celery
  • 5 carrots
  • 2 bunches scallions
  • 1/2 bunch leeks
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 bunches broccoli stems (or 1/2 cabbage)
  • 1 cup garlic cloves
  • 1 cup corn oil
  • salt/pepper
  • 4 gallons water
  • 1/2 cup Scotch
The Scotch gave rise to some discussion: Should that half-cup be a single-malt and, if so, a Speyside like my choice--Cragganmore--or something more peaty and smoky, or a Lowland like Auchentoshan? John at the Dish and I eventually decided that those could be saved for the sipping and that something blended and cheap would be just fine.

Onwards: Finely chop all vegetables and sauté them in corn oil until they begin to soften. Add water, scotch, salt and pepper and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and do so for no more than 90 minutes. Strain and cool.

Poblano Soup

  • 26 roasted chilies
  • 1 gallon vegetable stock
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 2 tablespoons garlic
  • 1/2 gallon cream
  • 10 fresh-squeezed limes
  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
Thicken with roux (a little flour and milk shaken in a bottle and stirred in, gradually).

Brown onions in olive oil. Add roasted, seeded and peeled chilies and the garlic. Let them heat up. Add all other ingredients except cilantro. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree. Return pureed mixture to heat and thicken with 1/2 cup roux. Put in a container and mix in chopped cilantro. Salt, pepper to taste and serve. Remember that the heat of the peppers may change--a little extra cream or crème fraiche will cut it nicely.

A soup which has helped me grow up for the past 40 years comes from the kitchen of a family which has also aided in my maturation--the Flores crew at El Charro. Long before Ray Jr., Marques and Candace were old enough to talk, we Pecks were going to El Charro in what is now La Placita. Now, you can't stop the kids from talking, and the El Charro empire is spread far and wide. But it always has a place in my heart. When I moved to the Presidio nearly 30 years ago, it was to a house directly behind the current El Charro. While we worked on replastering walls and refinishing floors, Carlotta would send busboys over with green corn tamales and carna seca tacos, chile rellenos and plenty of beans. She wanted well-fed neighbors.

Years later, after I had moved back to the farm to do economic-development work, Carlotta would FedEx Dora's hand-stretched tortillas and containers of carna seca to the wilds of Indiana. I have heard Ray Sr. expound--with passion and earnestness--on every issue facing Tucson in the course of 20 years. I have watched the kids become smart, mannerly, engaging adults. And Carlotta, a woman of rare grace, character and softness, taught me much about seeing the good in people and making the best of life. This soup is itself one of the best things in life.

Sopa de Tortilla

  • 6 cups chicken broth, skimmed
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 cup chopped white onion
  • 2 bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 cups chopped tomato
  • 2 cups chopped green chiles
  • 1 tablespoon garlic puree
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons seasoning salt (optional)
  • 6 small corn tortillas, cut lengthwise and fried until crisp (but not brown)
  • 2 cups shredded white cheese (Monterey jack, for example)
  • 2 avocados, pitted, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion, green part only
  • 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro (optional)
In a large pot, bring broth to boil; reduce heat to simmer. In a saucepan, heat oil and sauté onion, bell peppers, tomatoes, green chiles and garlic puree until slightly translucent. Add to simmering broth. Add oregano, pepper and seasoning salt, if using the latter. Cover pot and simmer for 20 minutes. To serve: In each bowl place 1/3 cup cheese. Add broth and 1/6 of the diced avocado. Garnish with green onion and cilantro, if using latter, and float tortilla strips on top.

In her excellent cookbook, El Charro Café: The Tastes and Traditions of Tucson, Carlotta notes that you can add a cup of cooked, shredded chicken meat to the soup before serving, to make it heartier. What I do is take the chicken with which I made the stock, cool it and shred it, marinate it in a green chile sauce and then roast it in the oven for 15-20 minutes. And I make a LOT of tortilla strips.

Both these soups gladden the heart and lighten the soul, and both are best-made with friends around and dogs underfoot. But then, those last two ingredients--the friends and the dogs--make everything better.

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