The weather in San Francisco has been confusing lately, as though it can’t decide whether it wants to be hot or cold. I went to the Exploratorium the other day to celebrate my friend’s birthday (along with the entire ten-and-under population of Northern California, it seemed) dressed in cuffed jeans and a three-quarter-sleeved shirt. I realized my mistake on my way to catch the bus as an icy gale whipped my hair about, freezing my bare wrists and ankles, mocking the sunny sky as well as my Southern Californian optimism.
This soup was my savior when I arrived home afterwards, thankful that the only youngster in the house was a four-year-old orange tabby. It’s filled with summery flavors, but all roasted and condensed into a brick-red bowl of love. (The soup, that is.) Jay and I have been enjoying it on chilly evenings for the past couple of weeks, of which there have been many.
Sopa Azteca bears semblance to tortilla soup, but the tortillas are fried into crispy strips and used as a garnish instead of thickening the body of the soup. Picante in Berkeley serves up bowls of the tangy, brick-red broth topped with shredded chicken, avocado, cilantro and queso fresco, and it is pure deliciousness. I modeled my recipe on theirs, trying to tease the same smoky flavors out of the broth, while keeping it vegetarian.
Not only is the soup itself warm and nourishing, it also gives us the chance to heat the oven in order to roast tomatoes and onions, sweet corn and summer squash. (Although if I had a grill and a place to put it other than a dodgy, two-square-foot fire escape, and if there weren’t a freezing gale outside, I would totally use it to cook the vegetables. And this pie.)
I start by roasting tomatoes with onion, garlic and Mexican oregano. Once cooled, I puree and strain them, then simmer the puree with water, ancho chile powder and smoked paprika for a simple broth. I tried using bouillon, but found the flavor to be all wrong; water is the way to go, and plenty flavorful, though a light chicken stock could work, too, if you were so inclined.
Meanwhile, sweet corn, cut off the cob, and sliced summer squash roast in the oven until sweet and slightly caramelized. The vegetables and broth go into bowls, and the soup gets smothered in a mess of toppings: crispy tortilla strips, a good squeeze of lime, fresh cilantro and cherry tomatoes, crumbles of queso fresco, and chunks of ripe avocado.
Shredded, cooked chicken is nice if you’ve got it, but not necessary, and you can skip the cheese to make it vegan. I’m imagining a wintry version with roasted sweet potatoes, wilted kale or chard, and black beans in the manner of my favorite enchiladas. Though clearly winter and summer are pretty much the same around here, weather-wise
One year ago:
Vegetarian Sopa Azteca with Roasted Corn, Zucchini and Tomatoes
A whole lot of ancho chile powder, which is very mild, gives this broth its flavor and brick-red color. If you wish to substitute a different type of chile powder, proceed with extreme caution! Also, beware of chile powders that contain other spices, like cumin; they may or may not work here. Feel free to add a dash of powdered cayenne or chipotle powder if you want more heat. I like the neutral-warm flavor of sunflower oil for cooking here, but any mild-tasting vegetable oil will work.
Feta makes a fine substitute if you can’t find queso fresco or cotija; a mild melting cheese, such as jack, is good, too. Or leave off the cheese altogether for a vegan version. You can also add cooked, shredded chicken, and/or use chicken stock in place of the water if you like. I like this soup best warm, but not piping hot.
Makes 6 servings
1 large yellow onion
1 pound (about 4) large, ripe tomatoes, quartered
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
1/2 teaspoon mexican oregano
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus another 3/4 teaspoon
6 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons (yes, tablespoons) ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (a.k.a. pimenton de la vera)
3-6 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lime juice (from 2-3 limes)
The roasted corn and zucchini:
1 1/2 pounds summer squash, trimmed, in 1/2″ pieces
3 large ears of sweet corn
2 tablespoons sunflower oil, divided
To finish the soup:
4 corn tortillas
1 large avocado, ripe but firm, halved, pitted, removed from the skin with a spoon, and cut into chunks
a large handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
a large handful of cilantro leaves, washed and chopped
1 cup crumbled queso fresco or cotija cheese
Make the broth:
Position two racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 450ºF.
Peel the onion and cut it in half, then cut each half into eight wedges. Place the onion, tomato quarters and garlic cloves in a 9×13″ roasting pan. Drizzle with the oil, sprinkle with the salt and oregano, and toss the vegetables around to coat them evenly. Roast the vegetables until they are collapsing and caramelized around the edges, 45-60 minutes, tossing every 20 minutes to prevent the edges from burning too much (a bit of blackening is ok).
Cool the onion mixture to warm, then scrape it all into a food processor and blend to a paste. Add 2 cups of the water, blend, then strain into a large saucepan or small soup pot, pressing on the solids to extract as much good stuff as possible, leaving behind the tomato seeds and bits of skin. Discard the solids.
Add the remaining 4 cups of water to the pot along with the chile powder, smoked paprika, and remaining 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Bring the broth to a simmer, then cover, lower the heat, and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly, then stir in the lime juice, starting with the smaller amount and adding more to taste. (I like mine on the tangy side.) The broth can be made a day or two ahead and stored in the fridge; the flavor gets better and better.
Meanwhile, roast the corn and summer squash:
Place the summer squash chunks in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil, and sprinkle with a big pinch of salt. Toss to coat.
Place the corn on a small, rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and toss to coat.
Roast the squash and corn in the oven until tender and bronzed, about 15 minutes for the corn, and 20-30 minutes for the squash, stirring and flipping the vegetables a few times for even cooking.
Make the tortilla strips:
Cut the tortillas in half, then cut them crosswise into 1/4″ strips. Coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet with a thin layer of oil and place over a medium flame until the oil shimmers. Add a single layer of tortilla strips and cook, tossing occasionally, until they are crisp and golden, about 5 minutes. Drain the strips on a paper towel or two. Repeat with the remaining strips, adding more oil if necessary.
Serve the soup:
Divide the roasted corn and squash among 6 large bowls, and add the warm broth. Top each bowl with avocado, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, queso fresco and tortilla strips, and a squeeze of lime juice.