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Tortilla Soup

(Sopa de Tortilla)

There are as many different recipes for this classic Mexican soup as there are Mexican cooks...and enthusiasts. Actor Matt Broderick is one of the latter, as captured in Paul Newman's Own Cookbook, but this isn't his recipe--all the chili powder and cumin he recommends just overwhelms the soup to my mind. This one uses the ancho chile of Michoacán. You want even hotter? Use hotter chiles. Also, I've selected a "pretty" combination of garnishes--but, traditionally, you can just use whatever cheese, vegetables, even chicken that you've got around. It's the presentation of all these garnishes that makes it such a showstopper. Serve hot to 4 as a substantial first course or as lunch.

Garnishes: fried corn tortillas; small cubes of fresh cheese (queso fresco or farmer's cheese) or Monterey Jack; fine chopped avocado; fine chopped red pepper, wedges of lime; and crumbled ancho.

First cut off the stem of the ancho, cut it in half, and throw out the seeds. Reserve 1/4 of the dried chile to use as garnish, then soak the rest of it in hot water.

In a large saucepan, saute onion and garlic in oil over medium heat until they are golden brown--as much as 12 minutes. Puree with the tomatoes and soaked ancho, then pour back into the saucepan with the stock. Bring to a boil, then let simmer for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

While broth is simmering, prepare tortillas. Traditionally, you cut day-old or dried-out corn tortillas in half, then slice the halves into thin strips--fry them on both sides in 1/3 cup of hot oil, until crisp--then drain. If time is of the essence, you can cheat with store bought.

When ready to serve, arrange cubed cheese and chopped pepper and chopped avocado in 4 flat soup bowls, then ladle over the broth, sprinkle each with the crumbled ancho, top with a mound of fried tortillas and serve with a lime wedge. The lime is important!

You could, of course, do all of this at the table for a truly dramatic presentation.