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Cooking | Magazine

Recipes: Three hearty Mexican soups

Take the chill off this fall with these boldly flavored soups.

Mexican chicken soup with tomatillos.
Mexican chicken soup with tomatillos.Connie Miller/of CB Creatives

In Mexico, we learned that cooks build bold flavor with a bevy of powerful pre-Columbian ingredients. Chewy and slightly sweet, hominy lends satisfying texture to pozole, a robust but balanced stew of chicken thighs, tomatoes, and white onion. A touch of agave syrup balances the kick of ancho spice in a no-fuss — and meat-free — tortilla soup. And charred chilies and toasted spices build layers of flavor in a spin on chicken noodle made brighter by tangy tomatillos.

Mexican Chicken Soup With Tomatillos

Makes 6 servings

For our take on chicken soup, we looked to Mexico for inspiration and came up with a recipe that builds layer upon layer of flavor — chilies, spices, and herbs. We use charred fresh jalapeño and poblano peppers, a flavor-boosting technique common to Mexican and Latin American cooking. For dried spices, we add depth with relatively little effort by using toasted whole as well as ground coriander and cumin. For more spice, use serranos instead of jalapeños, or include the chilies' seeds.

Bone-in, skin-on chicken legs provide broth-thickening collagen. The broth and chicken can be made a day ahead and refrigerated separately before proceeding. However, shred the chicken while it’s still warm.

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Be sure to use the tomatillos — they give the soup acidity and texture. If you can’t find fresh, substitute canned tomatillos, drained.

2 large white onions, 1 quartered and 1 chopped

1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves separated

2 whole dried ancho or pasilla chilies, stemmed, seeded, and torn into rough pieces

2 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted, plus 1 tablespoon ground coriander

2 tablespoons cumin seeds, toasted, plus 1 tablespoon ground cumin

Kosher salt

1 head of garlic

2½ to 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken legs

2 fresh poblano chilies

2 fresh jalapeño chilies

1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked and quartered

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2 tablespoons grape-seed or other neutral oil

2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

15-ounce can hominy, drained

Toasted pepitas, lime wedges, and sour cream or Mexican crema (optional), to serve

In a large pot, combine 10 cups of water with the quartered onion, cilantro stems, dried chilies, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cut off and discard the top third of the garlic, leaving the head intact, and add to the pot. Cover and bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the chicken and return to a boil. Reduce to medium-low heat and cook partially covered for 30 minutes, maintaining a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, heat the broiler to high with an oven rack 6 inches from the element. Arrange the poblanos and jalapeños on a rimmed baking sheet and broil, turning frequently, until evenly blackened and blistered, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover tightly, and set aside. Chop the cilantro leaves and set aside.

Peel, stem, and seed the charred chilies, then roughly chop and add to a food processor along with the tomatillos. Pulse until coarsely chopped, 6 to 8 pulses.

Transfer the chicken and garlic head to a plate and let them cool. Strain the broth, discarding the solids. Wipe out the pot. Add the oil, chopped onion, and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Add the ground coriander, ground cumin, and oregano and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the tomatillo-chili mixture and cook, stirring frequently and scraping up any browned bits, until most of the moisture has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil.

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Shred the chicken into bite-size pieces, discarding the skin, bones. and cartilage. Using tongs, squeeze the garlic head into the soup. The tender cloves should easily pop out of their skins. Add the chicken and hominy. Return to a simmer and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in ½ cup of the chopped cilantro, then taste and season with salt. Top the soup with toasted pepitas, lime juice, more chopped cilantro, and sour cream, if desired.

Pozole Rojo With Chicken

Makes 4 servings

A key ingredient in the hearty Mexican soup known as pozole is hominy, or dried corn kernels cooked in an alkaline solution. Hominy has a satisfying and subtle chewiness and a mild sweetness. It’s sold in cans, often in the Latin foods section of the supermarket. If you’re up for offering more garnishes for your pozole, shredded cabbage or radishes add color and crunch.

Plain chili powder, which is a blend of ground chilies, herbs, and spices, won’t work well in this recipe. Ancho chili powder, the type called for here, is simply ground ancho chilies without any added ingredients. It gives the pozole a pure, deep chili flavor.

1 tablespoon grape-seed or other neutral oil

1 medium white onion, chopped, plus thinly sliced white onion, to serve

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6 medium garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons ancho chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

14½-ounce can diced fired-roasted tomatoes

2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth

1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed

29-ounce can hominy, drained and rinsed

½ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons lime juice, plus lime wedges, to serve

Kosher salt

Tortilla chips or warmed tortillas, to serve

In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the oil and heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ancho powder, and cumin, then cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a simmer. Stir in the chicken and hominy, then bring to a simmer. Reduce to medium heat, then cover and cook until the chicken is opaque throughout, about 20 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a medium bowl. Cover the pot and reduce it to low heat to keep the soup hot. Using two forks, shred the chicken into bite-size pieces. Stir the chicken back into the pot and cook until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the cilantro and lime juice. Taste and season with salt. Serve with sliced white onion, lime wedges, and tortilla chips.

Ancho chilli soup.
Ancho chilli soup.Connie Miller/of CB Creatives

Ancho Chili Soup

Makes 4 servings

This meat-free spin on tortilla soup is inspired by a recipe from the late Patricia Quintana, chef, author, and authority on Mexican cooking. Ancho chilies — dried ripe poblanos with a mild heat balanced by notes of tobacco, cocoa, and dried fruit — drive the rich flavor and deep color of the soup. The agave rounds out the earthiness with a touch of sweetness. If you don’t have any on hand, use 1 teaspoon white sugar instead. We like to top each serving with diced avocado and crumbled queso fresco.

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The chili soaking water shouldn’t be used in the soup — it may give the finished dish an unwelcome bitterness.

4 medium ancho chilies (about 2 ounces), stemmed, seeded, and torn into pieces

1 cup boiling water

3 tablespoons grape-seed or other neutral oil, divided

1 pound vine-ripened tomatoes, cored

1 medium white onion, root end intact, cut into 4 wedges

2 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1½ teaspoons agave syrup

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1½ quarts low-sodium chicken broth

3 cups tortilla chips, roughly crumbled

Sour cream, for serving

Roughly chopped fresh cilantro, for serving

In a Dutch oven over medium heat, toast the chilies, pressing with a wide metal spatula and flipping once or twice, until fragrant and a shade darker in color, about 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and add the boiling water. Let stand until softened, about 10 minutes.

While the chilies soak, in the same pot, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high until shimmering. Add the tomatoes, onion, and garlic, then cook, turning occasionally with tongs, until charred all over, 8 to 10 minutes. If the garlic is done ahead of the tomatoes and onion, remove the cloves from the pot. Transfer the tomatoes, onion, and garlic to a blender and add the agave and 1 teaspoon salt. Drain the chilies, discarding the water, and add to the blender. Blend until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides as needed.

In the same the pot, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and heat over medium until shimmering. Add the puree and cook, stirring constantly, until slightly darkened in color and thickened, 5 to 7 minutes; it will splatter a little as it cooks. Stir in the broth and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Divide the chips evenly among serving bowls. Ladle in the soup, then top with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of cilantro.


Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.