It’s always a difficult transition for the first few days, no matter if I’m traveling to or from my old or new countries. However, some of my favorite reflective moments occur at these times- my observations of the surroundings are so intense upon first impact. The details and characteristics of a place that I take for granted in my every day life are renewed and vibrant. When I travel to America, my first surprising impressions are usually about size – the monstrous cars, oversized soda cups, overweight population. Everything I see seems (and is) bigger: plates, washing machines, coffee grinders, chainsaws, skyscrapers… Where I come from, Texans loudly flaunt their passion for the oversized with the popular saying “Everything is bigger in Texas.” A mix of jet-lag and culture shock leaves me feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland after she drank the shrinking potion.
On the return trip however, my first impact of Italians and Italy is often about the details. One of my favorite airport games when waiting for an Italy-USA flight is “guess the homeland,” but it’s not exactly a challenge. The Italians’ natural-born style and grace is a dead give-away, that and the nice leather shoes. The aesthetic attention paid to each detail of every day life jumps out at me on my first days back in Italy: a heart drawn in the foam of a perfect cappuccino, the elaborately decorated shop windows, the hand-written labels from my spice-vendor at the market, the way the pharmacist wraps up my medicine box in neat, printed paper… It’s good to savor these moments of appreciation, because before long I’ll acclimate and start complaining about the smog of Milan, the interminable wait at the post office/bank/pharmacy (all those individually wrapped packages…), the dirty trains, the search for sour cream, and all the other hilarious complications of being an American in Italy.
So here’s a soup for acclimating, it’s spicy, flavorful, and takes me back to my roots. It’s a Tex-Mex favorite that I hadn’t yet tried out on Italians, so I experimented on my favorite guinea-pig-slash-husband and received raving reviews.
For chicken and broth:
- 1 whole chicken
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- 2 celery stalks, cut in large chunks
- 1 carrot, cut in large chunks
Place chicken and vegetables in a large soup pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer until chicken is done, about 30 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let cool. Remove and discard skin and bone, shred the meat. Strain and reserve the cooking broth, discard vegetables.
For the soup:
- 4 corn tortillas into 1/2 inch strips
- 1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
- 1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
- 1 dried chipotle chile, seeds removed
- chopped cilantro
- lime wedges
- sour cream
- grated cheese
- peeled and shredded jicama
- julienned radish
- cubed avocado
Fry tortilla strips in small batches in the peanut or vegetable oil. Drain on paper towels and season with salt.
In a large, heavy soup pot, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil and add bell pepper, jalapeno, onion, garlic and salt. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes, then pour in reserved chicken broth. Next add the tomatoes and chipotle pepper.
Bring to a boil then turn down to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Add the shredded chicken and heat, but do not boil. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as needed. If the soup is too thick, add more water until it reaches desired consistency.
Serve with crispy tortilla strips and little bowls of your garnishes of choice.
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When Laurel is home, our world turns over. The tiny kitchen seems smaller than ever when she cooks. Every pot is put to good use and the chickens get more scraps than ever because we feed armies when Laurel is home. Often fabulous dishes are made, but no one is allowed to touch them until Emilio as photographed them thoroughly. Then, those of us who have experienced the aroma of a Laurel creation all day, are finally allowed to taste and always say, “ahhhhh”. The tortilla soup was one that we all loved and it fed us for a few cold days, warming our bones and continuing to comfort us. I miss Laurel, but always find her in her recipes.