Even though temps are spiking in the 40's this weekend, which is crazy for Minnesota in January (there will be runners in shorts), I think everyone can appreciate a comforting bowl of soup this time of year. In this recipe, the smokey-spicy kick of chilies is rounded out by the down to earth heartiness of Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet corn, then brightened by fresh lime and cilantro oil. And, of course, nobody needs to make excuses for adding fried, sprouted corn tortillas on top. As my Macrobiotic cooking instructor and sea vegetable expert Jill Gusman said back in cooking school, much to our amusement, "Fried food is dynamic!". Yep, and really, really tasty. Let us be deliciously dynamic.
I love ingredients. The potential. The colors, shapes, and smells. I feel inspired and connected to the earth when working with food. I like getting to know the idiosyncrasies of ingredients. Poblano peppers, for example, are a little hard to gauge as far as spiciness. Most fall into a category somewhere around a mild to medium jalapeno. Some hit the medium to hot jalapeno mark. Some are surprisingly mild, a let down when you are looking for a little heat in your recipe.
With this in mind, I suggest a few options for this recipe to suit the taste of the cook and his/her audience, and to solve the problem of the sometimes unpredictable poblano.
1) For the "non-chili heads": This group wants flavor but no heat, so a substitution of bell pepper, any color, and sweet smoked paprika in the spice blend will be perfect.
2) The "Two chillies on a scale of one to ten" crowd: This group wants a nice tingle, but doesn't want to feel challenged by chilies. The solution? Taste the poblanos before prepping, and if they are spicy enough, use sweet smoked paprika in the recipe. If they leave something to be desired, kick up the recipe with dried, ground chipotle pepper. A combination of both chipotle and smoked paprika is also an option. Note: There are both sweet smoked paprika and generically smoked paprika which can have a little heat.
3) The "chili-head" group: This group knows no bounds when it comes to Scoville units. So, even if the poblanos are on the nippy side, and chipotle pepper is used in the recipe, the soup comes out to be a totally tolerable medium spicy. A noticeable kick, but not enough to completely overpower the other flavors.
I personally recommend the group number two route. If the poblanos have a nice heat, use smoked paprika. If not, sub chipotle powder in the spice blend. Do what you feel. If you can't get your hands on poblanos and use bell peppers, compensate with chipotle.
Now that the poblanos have been assessed and a plan has been made, it's time to char those babies. I am going for layers of flavor with this soup. Multiple corn flavors and multiple smokey chili flavors. Charring is going to provide some of that and the smoked paprika/chipotle pepper will do the rest. Charring is easy if you have a gas range. Simply lay the washed and dried peppers down on the grate over the flame and turn them until they are well blackened on all sides. Quickly put them in an airtight container while still hot and allow them to steam about 5 minutes. Then, using a paper towel, remove as much char as comes off easily. Don't worry if a little remains. Now the peppers are ready to be prepped. Slice them, remove the seeds, and dice.
If you don't have a gas range there are two options. You can cut the peppers lengthwise, flatten them out and use a cast iron pan or griddle over medium-high heat to char the skin side. Place a weight (another heavy pan works well) over the peppers to keep them in contact with the pan firmly. Another option is to slice them in half, flatten them as much as you can, and place them under the broiler until much of the skin is blistered. Then follow the step above, though with this method, you may be able to peel the blistered layer more easily. However you char your peppers, don't forget to turn your vent fan on high! If the peppers are spicy you may want to evacuate any chili-sensitive individuals from the kitchen.
Your soup journey begins with sweating the aromatics, which is basically a low saute where nothing is browned. Then, the addition of chopped sprouted corn tortillas serves to help thicken the soup and add another layer of summery corn flavor. The other key to getting a nice "creamy", thick, chowder-like soup without dairy is to puree part of the soup solids and add them back. So, there are three thickening factors going on: the potato, the corn tortilla, and the blending technique. The recipe calls for 6 cups of stock or water, and I highly recommend using stock, home-made if possible. For a slightly thicker soup, reduce the liquid to 5 cups.
One critical cooking skill that should be practiced mindfully while making soups, stews, dressing, and sauces, is seasoning. I add two teaspoons of salt to the pot before simmering the soup to allow the potatoes to absorb salt while cooking, and this should be a moderate level for many tastes. Then I suggest 2 Tbsp of lime juice to finish. But, after the soup is done simmering, you want to perfect the seasoning to your taste, so try adding half the amount of lime juice first, then tasting. Add another teaspoon, then another. Maybe you find you need less or more lime to hit the sweet spot. Maybe you find that you want a little more salt. Tinker around until the salt and acid levels come together in just the right way for you. Try taking a moment to be aware of the confluence of the salt and the acid when finishing the soup in order to hone your skills.
Instead of chopping fresh cilantro into this soup, I decided on a rich, herbal burst of blended cilantro oil to finish the soup, along with the fried tortilla. I blanch the cilantro to help it stay green a little longer, though the color will dull after a few days. Use a mild, vegetal olive oil that is grassy or buttery tasting rather than a peppery and bold. This will help the cilantro stand out and not be overtaken by possible bitter notes in the oil. This nice pop of flavor stirred into the soup by the diner, and the fun crunchy element of the fried garnish complete the dish nicely. With the crunchy tortilla there is also a triple threat of maize going on too.
On that note, masa harina is also a great thickener when making chowders or soups with Southwest or Central American flair. Masa harina is the fine corn flour made from nixtamal, corn that has been processed with lime water (a solution of calcium hydroxide from the mineral lime, not the fruit), wood ash lye, or a combination of both. This process releases the amino acid niacin, increasing the nutrition in the corn and allowing it to form a complete protein when combined with beans. Hominy is also a nixtamalized corn. This process was, and is, a cornerstone of nutritional success for ancient and modern meso-American peoples, and continues on as an important foodway to this day.
I am going to plug my favorite tortillas for cooking with because ingredients and quality do matter and do equal flavor. I used a store brand for the recipe test, the store will remain anonymous, and well, they were like cardboard. So, I went back to pick up my long time favorite, Food For Life Organic Sprouted Corn Tortillas (I am not being paid to promote them, but damn they are tasty). They are worth it for this recipe. Sweet, nutty, and full of flavor. If you do try these, try making your own corn chips too. They are out of this world. In short, use the best tasting, freshest corn tortillas you can find and your taste buds will thank you.
In order to use as little oil as possible, I like to use my little tiny cast iron pan to fry things occasionally. I did the tortilla strips in three batches with about 1/2 inch of high heat oil. I had accidentally bought a jar of refined coconut oil instead of virgin and decided to keep it to use for frying. Then I made my son a few tortilla chips to take with his lunch and he was pleased. Feel free to make extra, these tend to get nibbled on by thieves passing through your kitchen! Enjoy the soup and stay warm.
Poblano, Corn, Potato Chowder with Cilantro Oil and Crispy Tortilla
For the soup:
- 2 Medium sized poblano peppers
- 1/3 C celery, medium dice
- 1/2 C onion, medium dice
- 1 1/2 C sweet corn, fresh or frozen
- 3 Medium cloves garlic, minced. Reserve a small amount of the mince for cilantro oil.
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4, 6 Inch corn tortillas, cut to 1/2 inch squares
- 1 Bay leaf
- 1/8 Tsp chipotle powder or smoked paprika
- 1/4 Tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 Tsp ground coriander
- Pinch ground clove
- 2 Tsp sea salt
- 1 Lb Yukon Gold potatoes, medium dice
- 6 C stock or water
- 2 Tbsp lime juice (about one lime)
For the cilantro oil:
- 1/2 Bunch cilantro (from medium sized bunch)
- 1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
- 1/8 Tsp sea salt
- Pinch raw garlic
- 1 Tbsp lime juice (about 1/2 lime)
For the fried tortillas:
- 4 or more corn tortillas
- High heat oil
- Sea salt
Begin by charring the poblanos over the open flame of a gas range, or using one of the alternate methods described in the recipe overview above. When evenly charred, remove them from the flame and place in a tightly covered bowl or container to steam for five minutes. Rub the char off of the peppers with a paper towel. If a little clings on that's OK. Split the peppers open, remove the seeds, and medium dice.
In a soup pot, saute the pepper, celery, onion, corn, and garlic in three Tbsp extra virgin olive oil over medium-low heat, taking care not to brown the garlic, until the onions and celery are soft and translucent. This will take about 15 minutes. Add the tortillas, bay leaf, chipotle, cumin, coriander, clove and sea salt. Stir the seasonings and tortillas in well and add the potatoes and stock/water. Bring the pot to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
After simmering the soup, the potatoes should be tender. Remove 1 C of the solids from the soup and about 1/2 C liquid. Puree the mixture in a blender or processor until as smooth as possible and add this back to the pot. Season the soup with lime juice, tasting to see if the acid and salt levels work for you. Adjust as necessary.
For the cilantro oil, prepare a small pot of boiling water and a bowl of ice cold water. Wash the cilantro and trim any rough or thick ends from the bottom, leaving most of the stems. Blanch for 15 seconds in the boiling water. Remove the herb from the boiling water and shock in ice water until cold. Squeeze as much water from the cilantro as possible and combine in a processor or small blender with 1/2 C mild, buttery tasting extra virgin olive oil, 1/8 Tsp salt, a very small amount of raw garlic reserved from the soup prep, and 1 Tbsp lime juice. Take care with the amount of raw garlic, you can always add more so begin with a very conservative amount. Literally a few of the mince pieces or a tiny sliver is good to start. When the mixture is thoroughly blended, check for salt, garlic, and acid levels and adjust accordingly.
Prepare a small, heavy bottomed pan, such as a saute or thick sauce pan, with high heat oil about 1/2 inch thick. Have a plate with paper towels ready and sea salt for seasoning. Slice four or more six inch corn tortillas into thin strips about 1/8 inch thick. I sliced the tortillas into four lengthwise, then basically made a julienne/matchstick cut from the strips. Bring your oil up to temp, testing it as it heats by dropping a strip of tortilla in to see if it fries vigorously. When the oil is ready, fry the strips in batches until golden brown. You will notice that the tortillas start to sizzle less when they are done because the moisture has been evaporated. Remove them to the plate with paper towels to drain, and season them lightly with sea salt.
Serve the soup hot with 1 to 2 Tsp cilantro oil, depending on taste and size of serving, and fried tortilla garnish. *Note: If you really like the tortilla garnish, go ahead and make more as suggested in the recipe and post above. Four tortillas will make a small garnish for 8 servings.
Yield: Six healthy portions. 8 light portions.