Cinco de Mayo & Mexican Cuisine [Sopa Azteca with Cilantro Pesto]

You’ve got to hand it to the Mexicans; they can do food like nobody else. Better than the French (
Désolé mes amis), better than the Spanish (Lo siento mis amigos) and better than the Italians (Spiacente miei amici)… at least as far as my gut is concerned. Their colourful plates are amass with vibrant produce, umpteen varieties of tongue tingling chilies, slow braised, barely holding themselves together cuts of meat, cobs of corn slathered in butter and rich mayonnaise infused with a Cajun mix of spices, lusciously creamy posoles and mole, cemitas filled with potatoes, tender cactus & stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, crispy chiles rellenos loaded with smooth Mexican-style ricotta……have I lost you yet? Because I’m suddenly filled with the urge to hop a plane to Oaxaca. Truly, my love of Mexican cuisine knows no bounds. Even something as simple as a plate of rice and beans serves as one of my most sensuous meals in recent memory.   

There is something truly magical about the textural varieties of Mexican food that makes me coo with delight upon seeing a giant plate of toothsome corn tortillas charred lightly and stuffed with tender carnita meat, creamy avocado, tart Tomatillo Salsa and pickled jalapenos.… there lies the perfect bite of crunchy, smooth, creamy, hot, spicy, cool… nothing is missed, nothing is without balance. This seems to be a constant in most of Mexico’s historic cuisine. Though sussing out a spot that respects the traditions and authentic flavours of Mexico isn’t always a task easily completed. We’ve only recently started to see a movement in truly authentic Mexican cuisine in Ottawa, but it’s still a far cry from the hole-in-the-wall joints you might find in bigger cities.  Making dishes at home seems to be the only way to experience all the flavours and colours of Mexico without being bombarded with the sometimes tacky, overly Americanized Tex-Mex cuisine.

To celebrate Cinco de Mayo, I decided to make something that hadn’t made it’s way into my kitchen before.  Sopa Aztec; a chili-spiked tomato broth, acidic and ever-so-lightly spiced, topped with cubed avocado, melty cheese (usually queso fresco,
Chihuahua, or Asadero), fried tortilla strips and more crumbled chilies if desired. It’s one of the most comforting soups I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. And of course, since it was a recipe I adapted from the KING of Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless, it’s no surprise that it came out as tummy-pleasingly as it did. He truly is a master of his craft.

Whip up a batch of this sopa, don your most colourful sombrero, shake your mariachis and sip on a citrusy Margarita (on the rocks or bust!) this May 5th, Cinco de Mayo! It’s time to throw down! 

Sopa Azteca with Cilantro Pesto
adapted from Rick Bayless 

I wasn’t able to find epazote or Pasilla chilies on such short notice, so I left out the former and opted for a dried ancho chili instead. I also couldn’t find any authentic cheese, but I usually use a simple goat mozzarella in my Mexican dishes. I love the flavour. 

1 large dried pasilla or ancho chile, stemmed and seeded
One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice ( fire-roasted if you can find them)
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 medium white onion, rough chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 quart chicken broth

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large ripe avocado, pitted, flesh scooped from the skin and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups queso fresco, oaxaca or goat mozzarella cheese
1 corn tortilla per person, sliced into thin strips
1/2 cup Mexican 
crema, sour cream or creme fraîche for garnish
*cilantro pesto (recipe to come)
1 large lime, cut into 6 wedges, for serving

Start by placing the dried chile in a dry pan over med-high heat and press down with a heavy pan or a fork until lightly toasted. Flip and repeat.

Place the chile and tomatoes in the blender and puree until smooth.

In a large pot over medium heat, add the oil, onions and garlic and saute until golden, about 6-7 minutes.  Scoop up the onion and garlic in a slotted spoon, leaving as much of the oil in the pan as possible. Toss the onions and garlic into the blender with the tomatoes and puree for another 10 seconds or until smooth. 

Bring the pan back to medium-high heat and add the tomato mixture. Let the liquid evaporate while stirring almost  constantly, until the mixture is almost as thick as tomato paste, about 10-12 minutes. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken and let it cook, about 10 minutes. 

Taste for salt and add if needed.

While the soup is simmering, toss the tortilla strips with a small amount of oil, just enough to coat them. Place on a foil/parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes at 325, checking halfway through. 

Ladle the soup into bowls and top with avocado cubes, cheese, cilantro pesto and tortilla strips. 

*Cilantro Pesto:
2 healthy handfuls of fresh cilantro
3 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
Place in food processor or blender and puree until smooth.