Side Orders: Chicken Tortilla Soup brings three cultures into one bowl

With a bit of Mexico, Cajun and French flavors, the Chicken Tortilla Soup at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill melds three cultures into one bowl.

Nowhere is the essence of food distilled more clearly than in a bowl of soup which, to me, is more like a beautiful patchwork quilt than food. With each sip, we are celebrating a myriad cultural exchanges and traditions.

Such is the case in a recent recipe for chicken tortilla soup that came my way from Firebirds Wood Fired Grill. If you've had it in the restaurant, you know what I mean when I say it crosses cultures, taking a bit from our neighbors to the south and adding the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking: bell peppers, onions and celery, known in French cuisine as mirepoix. So there you have it: a bowl of soup that's three cultures in one.

photo Anne Braly

And as winter really starts to kick in, it's a serving of pure comfort. All the goodness of every ingredient is released into the savory broth.

Good soups such as this one are unfussy and warming, naturally rich and amazingly tasty. They fill you up without leaving you groaningly full and, with the right textured toppings, such as chunks of creamy avocado and other accompaniments, they will satisfy your need for some bite, too.

I've found that recipes from restaurants often don't turn out the same as what's served in-house. Most home kitchens don't have the same equipment as what's found in professional kitchens. Also, restaurants can get get their hands on ingredients not easily found in grocery stores around town.

That's not the case with Firebirds' recipe. All it takes to make the soup is a Dutch oven or other large pot and ingredients that are sold in every major grocery chain around Chattanooga. But just to make sure, I tested the recipe by going to Firebirds at Hamilton Place and trying it for myself before making some at home a few days later. I was amazed at how it came out tasting almost exactly the same as the delicious soup I had in the restaurant.

If you have leftover chicken, it's a tasty way to turn the soup into a second meal. If you're short on time, stop by the store and pick up a rotisserie chicken. Either way, the soup can be made in about 30 minutes from start to finish.

If you don't have time to try it for yourself, stop by Firebirds any day of the week - it's on the menu every day - and order a cup or bowlful. And if you really want to be a little decadent, follow it with a piece of warm carrot cake drizzled with salted caramel syrup. Oh my, it's one of the best desserts in town and an incredible finish on a cold January night.

Firebirds Chicken Tortilla Soup

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

1 1/2 cups diced carrots

1 1/2 cups chopped celery

1 1/2 cups chopped red bell pepper

1/4 cup chopped garlic

6 cups rough-chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon cumin

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon cilantro

10 cups chicken stock

2 cups slightly crushed tortilla chips

1 1/2 cups shredded pepper Jack cheese

2 cups shredded roasted chicken

Heat vegetable oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add vegetables - except tomatoes - and sauté until tender. Then add the tomatoes, seasonings and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and let cook down for 20 minutes on medium heat. Add the broken tortilla pieces and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and, using a handheld blender, blend until mixture is smooth. Add the cheese and purée to incorporate.

Fold in the roasted chicken. Spoon into bowls and finish with your favorite toppings, such as sour cream, chives, chopped tomatoes and sliced avocado. Serve with extra tortilla chips or strips for dipping.

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