Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Sopa de Lima

I've decided to name my protagonist Esteban, after my brother, who learned to cook before I did.
Although he is a Mexican, Esteban (my fictional character) was born in the US, while his parents were living there illegally, so he is a de facto American citizen (unless Bush changed that rule). However, he was deported with his parents soon after he was born, and he grew up in Tijuana.
But that's not where his parents come from. They are from Oaxaca, and that is the culinary heritage he usually looks to when creating his food.

The other cuisine he becomes enamoured of is Yucatecan. And that's where sopa de lima comes in.

Almost all Americans from the southwest will be familiar with tortilla soup (and if you're not, you need to try it). Well, sopa de lima (lime soup) is the Yucatecan variation. A the name implies, it is flavoured with fresh lime juice, which adds such a compelling lift that I've completely gone off making the non-lime kind.

Sopa de lima was the first recipe I cooked from <i>Two Cooks and a Suitcase</i> (in effect launching me on my culinary adventure), and it was an instant hit.

As with all traditional soups, there are as many versions of the recipe a there are grannies and old aunties who make it. So when I got four new Mexican cookbooks for my birthday this year, I found lime soup recipes in three of them (and standard tortilla soup recipes in all four).
I recently tried one of the new recipes, but unfortunately it just inspired me to return to the Two Cooks one.

The recipe is really very simple, which for me is part of the attraction. To make a batch for two people (until Abby starts eating dinner with us we'll be cooking for two most nights) you need:

2 chicken breasts
1 roasted tomato, roughly chopped
1 roasted red pepper, roughly chopped
1 white onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, roasted and roughly chopped
1 chile pepper, roasted or pickled (NOT raw), seeded and diced
1 tablespoon of Mexican oregano
The juice of one lime

The chile you use is a matter of some controversy. The habanero is the ubiquitous chile of the Yucatán. It is also the hottest chile known to humankind, and it has a very distinct flavour. The only recipe I know that calls for it in the soup proper is Thomasina Miers' in <i>Mexican Food Made Simple</i>. Which is not to say I doubt you'll ever get this soup with habanero in the Yucatán; I'm just saying be sure you know what you're getting into.

The other recipes I have call for a green chile, which I usually read as "jalapeño", though it could be any green chile.

You'll also need somecorn tortillas, cut into strips and fried.

Though roasting tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and chiles is not hard, one of the great things about this soup, is that there's a cheat version. Use pre-roasted, stuff out of a jar and some diced, pickled jalapeños (even Tesco has these now). And for the tortilla strips, get a bag of tortilla chips and crush them.

Basically, bung everything except the tortillas in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked and tender.

Remove the chicken breasts to a plate, let them cool briefly, then shred them. I make a cut against the grain and rapidly shred the meat with a fork, like waiters do with crispy duck in Chinese restaurants.

Now strain the soup. The first time I did this I felt very weird about throwing away all the bits, but all the flavour by now will have gone into the broth, so there's no need to keep the chopped bits, and  they would be very off-putting floating around in the soup.

Place some shredded chicken into each bowl, add some broth, and top with the crispy, fried tortilla strips, and maybe some chopped coriander and a lime wedge.

The variation I tried recently came from Diane Kennedy's <i>Essential Cuisines of Mexico</i>.
Kennedy is meant to be the Julia Childs of Mexican cooking, so I had high hopes for this recipe. However, there were two issues with it which made it less successful than the simpler Two Cooks version.

The first issue was the amount of chile. Whereas Two Cooks calls for one chile, Kennedy gives a specific weight of chopped chile. I initially took this as good sign, as chiles can vary in size. However, the jalapeños I used came from Mexico (there was no English on the can), and were very hot. Jalapeños can very from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units, and these were definitely at the higher end of that. This meant the final soup was far too spicy.

The problem with this isn't that we're chile-wussies. It's that the dish ended up lacking balance.
Balance was something I heard them talk about a lot on Masterchef, bit I never really understood it until I cooked this soup for the first time. No one flavour overpowered the others; nothing got lost in the shuffle. Everything was there in just the right amount, working in harmony. It was beautiful. That kind of balance is impossible to achieve if the chiles drown out all the other flavours.

The other issue was the chicken. Kennedy calls for chicken on the bone, which is probably more authentic than breast. However, I suspect that chicken legs and thighs simply can't get tender enough in 20 minutes, the ready breasts can. The meat was difficult to shred, and still had a chewy texture. Mexican chicken tends to be more active (and therefore tougher) than battery farm chicken (we used organic, free-range chicken). As a result, Mexicans often boil chicken (and other meat) for a long time to soften it - much longer than 20 minutes. Failing that, I think you're going to need breast meat.

However, I did learn some interesting things from this experiment. Kennedy omits the roasted sweet pepper and does not use roasted tomato (odd, since she has a fool-proof method of roasting toms that Rick Bayless also cites in his book Authentic Mexican). However,as I began simmering the soup, the aroma was immediately familiar, and there was nothing in the pot at this point except chopped garlic, Mexican oregano, and water. This suggests that the true soul of this dish consists of of those two ingredients (so if you wanna make this soup, you better get hold of Mexican oregano).

The other thing I'll take with me is Kennedy's garnish idea. Although she doesn't use habanero in the soup proper, she recommends roasting some, skinning and seeding it, and chopping it finely. Then you put the chopped habanero in a dish on the table for diners to help themselves (put a small spoon in the dish as well, as it's dangerous to touch chiles with your bare hands).

This added lovely flavour and colour to the soup, and as it's on the side, anyone who doesn't want their head blown off can just leave it out.