Challenge the Chef: Tortilla Soup at Las Ventanas al Paraiso, Los Cabos (recipe included)

I challenged the chef—and I won.

Well, sort of. Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos offers a program called Challenge the Chef. To be honest, it’s not exactly what I thought it was going to be when I first heard about it. Initially I thought it was going to be a head-to-head competition, and I thought to myself, “Bring it!” More specifically, I was thinking of tortilla soup. I’ll pit my tortilla soup against anybody’s, even the chef of a five-star resort in Mexico.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t get to challenge the chef head-on, soup-to-soup. Instead, I would get to cook my soup for the chef, Fabrice Guisset, and he would then critique it and give it a rating (from one to three spoons). And if he liked it well enough, he would consider putting it on the menu for a day.

Mexico has many regional variations of tortilla soup, and the most common style in Baja (and in California) is the kind in which corn tortillas are ground into a paste to thicken the base of the soup. And while that might indeed be the true tortilla soup, it’s not the style I prefer. I grew up in Texas, where tortilla soup is spicy and brothy—not thick and sludgy—with fried, crunchy tortillas added on top of the soup rather than being ground into it. I also lived briefly in the Yucatán, where the regional tortilla soup (called sopa de lima, or lime soup) is refreshing and bright, made with bitter limes found only in that part of Mexico. My own creation is hybrid of Texas and Yucatán styles, a spicy, brothy soup filled with shredded chicken, chiles and tomatoes along with a vibrant dose of citrus.

I prepared my soup in the outdoor kitchen of the resort’s beautiful herb garden. I was nervous as I handed my soup to the chef.

He held the bowl to his nose and inhaled. Then he dipped his spoon into the bowl and raised it to his mouth.

“This is really interesting,” he says.

“That’s usually what someone says when they can’t think of anything nice to say,” I respond.

“No, really,” he says. “This is absolutely terrific. I give it a rating of three spoons. Do you mind if I put this on my new menu?”

“What, like, for a day,” I ask?

“No,” he says. “On the new, everyday menu.”

Brad’s Texas-Meets-Yucatán Tortilla Soup

Ingredients:

2 quarts chicken stock
2 large chicken breasts (I sometimes use 6 thighs instead)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 large sprigs of fresh oregano
1/2 head garlic, crushed
2 or 3 ancho chiles
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 green chile poblano, diced
3 roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
juice of 2 limes
zest of 1/2 grapefruit (shaved into bite-sized pieces)

Garnish:
lime wedges
chile serrano, thinly sliced
tortilla chips or strips
avocado, diced
fresh epazote leaves 

1. In soup pot, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the chicken, 1 teaspoon of salt, peppercorns, oregano, garlic and anchos. Reduce to a medium simmer and cook for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is done. Remove the chicken and anchos to cool. Strain and reserve the stock. When the chicken and ancho chiles are cool enough to handle, dice the softened chiles, and chop and hand-pull the chicken into bite-sized pieces.

2. Heat the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the onions and remaining salt, and cook until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the poblano chile and cook a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes and the reserved stock, chicken and anchos. Bring to a boil briefly, then remove from heat. Add the lime juice and grapefruit zest. Allow flavors to meld at least 5 minutes before serving.

3. Garnish with extra lime juice (throw the squeezed lime wedges into the soup), serrano chiles, tortilla chips, avocado and epazote.

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