August 1, 2008

Weekend Herb Blogging: Texas Tortilla Soup, Featuring Cilantro

It's my pleasure to present, in simultaneous return to the families live for food and stories theme of this blog and Kelly's at Sounding My Barbaric Gulp! hosting of Kalyn's Kitchen's Weekend Herb Blogging, my cousin Nancy's Texas Tortilla Soup.

This recipe features cilantro, an herb common in a lot of Tex-Mex and some Mexican cuisines. It's also used in Asian, Spanish and Latin American, Vietnamese, Indian, and other Southeast Asian cuisines. A lot of people like cilantro, but then a lot of people don't. There are actual groups dedicated to the hating of it. Seems odd to me, because I like it pretty well.

Why? Is it really awful? Not to me. I don't find it any stronger than most other common herbs. Maybe there's some chemical particular to cilantro that some people's tongues just react against. Anyway, I like it. It has a brightness that really sets off the Mexican flavors, too. And of course it's full of vitamin C and stuff.

Cilantro, an annual herb of the family Apiaceae, is easy to grow in most climates that have a warm growing season. It just needs well drained soil, and can take a little shade in the hot afternoon. And if you let it seed out, you get coriander (the seeds).

A note on the cilantro salmonella recalls: I'm getting to where I don't buy vegetables and herbs that I'm going to eat raw from the grocery stores. I either get them from local growers, or I grow them myself. If you notice, most of the trouble foods (if not all) come from big growers and distributors. But before I eat any raw food with the peal on it I soak it in a mix of water and vinegar, threeTablespoons to a gallon.

Here is the recipe. The story I'm associating with it is below that.

Texas Tortilla Soup
from Nancy Thompson

Nancy Says: This recipe is adapted from one published in a newspaper, by the Houston' restaurant Rotisserie for Beef & Bird.

2 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 fresh jalapeno, seeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 large carrots, diced
6 ribs celery, diced
1 teaspoon each: ground cumin, chili powder, salt, and lemon pepper
2 teaspoons bottled liquid hot red pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)

1 pound diced, skinless, boneless chicken breasts

1 can RoTel (tomatoes with green chilies)
4 (10 1/2 ounce) cans chicken broth, or equivalent homemade stock
1/2 cup flour
1/4 to 1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

8 corn tortillas, cut in strips
oil for frying tortillas
salt to taste on tortilla strips

garnishes: diced avocados, grated cheddar cheese

  • Heat oil in large skillet

  • Saute chopped onion, jalapeno, garlic, carrots, celery, and chicken, and
  • Simmer 5 minutes

  • Add the measured spices and flour, and

  • Cook, stirring, for five minutes

  • Add RoTel, cilantro, and chicken stock, and

  • Simmer for 1 hour

  • In a heavy skillet, heat oil to medium-high

  • Carefully lay tortilla strips into the hot oil, and

  • Fry until crisp, then

  • Drain on paper towels and salt to taste

To serve, put a few tortilla strips into the bottoms of your soup bowls, ladle the soup over, and garnish with the cheese and avocado. Serve with some longnecks, and lemonade for the kiddies!

The Story: Texas Camping Masacre

Nancy Thompson is my first maternal cousin Danny Thompson's wife. Thompson is actually her birth name, which was handy when they got married, I guess. I don't know if she was like me and not into changing her name, or if she wouldn't have minded, but either way it was a non-issue, obviously. They live on a ranch right outside scenic Fredericksburg, TX. Which means they eat Tex-Mex. They're both good cooks.

I'm sorry to say that I haven't been down there to visit them. Yet. And I don't know if the email address for them I have is a good one or not, because they never answer my emails (I'm not kidding) and they don't bounce back. Therefore, I will have to give you my own Fredericksberg, TX story, to set the scene. Maybe some day it will mean something to my children, if nothing else.

And there is a helpful hint in this story that could save your butt one day, if you're attacked by a skunk. And hint is food based.

I know.

Anyway, back in the early '80s my friend Carol and I went camping by the Guadeloupe River, in those gorgeous dessert-brushy hills west of Fredericksberg. Carol drove a brand new Porsche. She worked for Exxon. (I know.) We took my dog, Missy, with us. It took some talking to get Carol to let Missy in the Porsche. I sold the idea on guard dog grounds.

Missy was a Beagle I'd found roaming around a lake in Illinois, and taken home with me out of mercy and greed. She was a sweet, good natured thing. Not very old. Innocent and energetic. When we got to the hills and starting making camp, Missy instantly lit out chasing those fabulous TX jackrabbits, with their ears as tall as their bodies. Who cold stop her? There was hardly anyone out there right then, anyway, so I just let her run.

We lit a fire, made with mesquite we gathered from the brush. The river rushed through the valley down the hill from us, reminding me of all the time I'd spent with my grandparents canoeing in the Ozarks -- to me, a sound of happiness. On the fire, I showed Carol how to make the taquitos my Mexican boyfriend Rudy had shown me how to prepare on another camping trip in the Guadeloupe mountains: slice avocado; pull cilantro leaves off the stem; in iron skillet: cook chorizo and potatoes cooked over the fire, add Chiquaqua cheese at the end; on big flat rock: heat the tortillas; put chorizo-potato-cheese yumminess into tortilla, add avocado; eat. Wow. She liked it. Missy liked the leftovers. The longnecks (that 'beer' to you non-Texans) went well with it.

Then darkness, and bedtime. The tent. Carol had big ole six-shooter with her. Some guy she was seeing talked her into bringing it, in lue of talking her into bringing himself. In the tent, a little two-man pup, we kept it there between our two heads. I was more afraid it would go off accidentally and cause I big, messy tragedy than I was that some gruesome creature-man would come in after us. Wasn't that what the dog was for? To warn and snarl and attack?

But in the end it wasn't the gun or the creature-man that got us. It was the dog and the rain the skunk, it exactly the right combination.

The night wore on past midnight. Missy chased jackrabbits. It started to rain. There was a yelp. There was a terrible smell. Missy came back and wept outside the tent, dragging with her the strongest smell of skunk I can remember smelling.

Good Lord. Now here's a mess. The dog is whining and wet and sitting outside the tent. Now it's starting to thunder and lightning. The only possible shelters for Missy are the tent and the Porsche. I look over at Carol, and she shakes her head No. She has her hand on the six-shooter. That's not really necessary, I think. But I'm quiet. I can here her thinking: I didn't want to bring the d**n dog in the first place.

There was no immediate solution. She wouldn't let me put the dog in the car until I got the smell of her, and we were miles from everything and in the middle of a huge storm.

Waiting for morning. A long wait. Whining dog and skunk smell. Carol with gun. I didn't sleep much. Finally, it's dawn.

Rocky hills, mesquite, stinky dog, air that smells like fresh linens and moving water. The river down the hill. Angry friend with fancy car, no other way home (remember kids, there were not really any cell phones in the Old Days). What am I going to do?

Then I remember! My grandma Nonie, Ozark Lady (read: nature-loving hillbilly) that she was, had given me before she died the solution to nearly every problem in the universe. And sitting there nearly crying in the golden Guadeloupe morning her visage came back to me like a glowing Virgin with her foot upon a skunk, uttering the magic words: tomato juice.

I need to borrow the car. You wait here with the dog. I said to Carol. She made me explain. She gave me the keys. I drove down the blacktop and in short order saw a little country store, went in, bought six big cans of tomato juice, drove back.

I had to hold my breath while I pulled Missy into the Guadeloupe by her collar, but the pried-open cans of tomato juice were sitting on the near back, ready to go. I poured them, all of them,. all of the cans of tomato juice over the dog, one at a time, while she stood in the clear moving water and looked at me with her giantly soft brown eyes. Whata girl. I felt like defending her from mean TX women too attached to their cars, but didn't dare, considering.
Then I rinsed her off. She smelled wonderful! Clean and perfect. Tomato juice = goodbye skunkstink!

And off we all went in the car. Carol and I explored wonderful Fredericksburg, ate a German meal, looked in shops, and then headed toward Austin in search of a hotel that would let a dog in. We found one, and went immediately to sleep.

And so, in the the theme of Fredericksburg and tortillas and Texas and cilantro, we have Nancy's Tortilla Soup. Enjoy.

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