Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The college town where we live has gone crazy over a new theater that opened recently. A small but beautifully designed movie house with three big screens, it shows mostly independent flicks.

From opening day, this cinema has been packed, and much of the town’s social life seems to be revolving around it. Our friends are constantly calling when a new title appears on the marquis to see if we want to join them for dinner and a movie.

I love this casual way of getting together, and realized immediately that I could coordinate some winter entertaining around these movie nights. Instead of dining out, I am going to suggest to our fellow film buffs that we come back to our house for supper after the movie. I already have the menu planned.

It will be centered around a new tortilla soup I’ve made several times during the past few weeks. Tortilla soup is one of those great dishes that is light in taste, yet totally satisfying, and is as easy as 1-2-3 to assemble.

For this version, I combine sauteed onions and garlic with diced tomatoes and seasonings of cumin, oregano and chipotle pepper. This mixture simmers in chicken stock a few minutes, then cubes of boneless chicken breast and julienned yellow bell pepper are added and quickly cooked.

Tortilla strips, cut from corn tortillas, are sauteed in olive oil and mounded in each bowl of soup along with dollops of sour cream and sprinkles of cilantro as garnishes.

This main course is ideal to anchor an apres-cinema supper because it can be cooked a day in advance, and the tortilla strips sauteed three hours ahead. A quick reheating is all that is necessary at serving time.

To accompany bowls of this simmering broth, there will be a crunchy romaine salad topped with toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds available at most groceries) and corn bread.

Dessert is still up in the air — either orange-scented creme brulees or chocolate cinnamon cookies served with vanilla ice cream will end our big night at the movies.

Tortilla soup with chicken and lime

This soup can be prepared a day ahead; cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat.

1 small dried chipotle pepper (see note)


1½ tablespoons olive oil plus extra oil for frying the tortilla strips

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1½ teaspoons oregano

One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained well

6 cups chicken stock

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-by-1/4- inch strips

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Kosher salt

6 6-to-7-inch corn tortillas

½ to 3/4 cup sour cream

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

6 thin lime wedges for garnish, optional

Place the chili in a small bowl and cover with 1 cup boiling water. Let sit until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain, discarding water. Pat chili dry, slit it open, and scrape out and discard seeds. Coarsely chop chili and set aside.

Heat 1½ tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When hot, add onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir and cook 1 minute more.

Add chopped chili, cumin, oregano, tomatoes and stock. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook 10 minutes. Puree the soup in a food processor or blender and return to the pot. (Or use an immersion blender and puree in the pot.)

Bring pureed soup to a simmer over medium heat and add the chicken and yellow pepper. Simmer until chicken is cooked through and pepper strips are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lime juice, then taste and season with salt, as needed.

For the garnish, stack the tortillas and then cut them in half. Stack halves and cut, crosswise, into 1/4-inch wide strips.

Place a medium skillet over medium high heat and coat the bottom generously with olive oil. When oil is hot, add about a third of the tortilla strips and saute, turning often, until golden and crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove to drain on paper towels. Continue, adding more oil as needed, until all strips are cooked. (Tortilla strips can be cooked 3 hours ahead; leave at room temperature.) To serve, ladle soup in to 6 soup bowls.

Garnish each serving with a generous handful of tortilla strips. Add a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of cilantro, and serve, if desired, with a lime wedge (to squeeze over the soup). Makes 6 servings.

Note: For this soup, I like to use dried chipotles usually sold in cellophane packages at most supermarkets. If you can’t find dried ones, you can use chipotles in adobo sauce. Rinse off sauce and seed and chop the pepper — no need to reconstitute in hot water.


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